On Monday, I stood in front of The Two Fridas for the first time. As with many well-known and frequently reproduced images, it did not occur to me that I had never actually seen this painting in person, until I was standing in front of the canvas. It’s a rare and exhilarating sensation to be seeing something very familiar, but totally new. You can feel yourself wake up.
The two Fridas are very matter of fact, addressing their pain and exposure with clinical clarity. The drama in the image –blood, gore, storm brewing, love broken– is balanced by Frida’s calmness, and by the sheer weight of her double presence. Rather than a person divided against herself, Frida’s depiction of her two selves (German and Mexican) serves to give her strength and solidity. This is a smart painting that plays with traditional wedding images, relationships and sexuality, but what I am consistently drawn to, is the slump of her blue belly. She’s a fellow human, present in all her awkward, fleshy glory.
The blood dripping onto Frida’s embroidered skirt, reminded me of a piece of Nava Lubeski’s that I saw at the Museum of Art and Design in 2007. Nava had spilled wine on a table cloth and then delicately stitched around the edge of each spill, transforming the results of her clumsiness, into something assertive and intriguing. Frida performed a similar process of transformation in her paintings, turning her traumas into powerful and unapologetic declarations of self-hood. What the Lubeski piece makes particularly clear, is the difference in time lines; a careless mistake happens in seconds, but the painstaking process of repair enfolds slowly. Many artists, myself included, actively cultivate mistakes and obstacles in the art making process, so as to have something to fight against. It is funny that we don’t embrace the same attitude towards our lives outside of the studio.
A couple of days before seeing the Kahlo at LACMA, I visited the studio of Michelle Carla Handel and was confronted by Trouble Feeling My Feelings, a soft sculpture that sits somewhere between bondage equipment and throw pillows. The title aptly describes my initial reaction to the piece.
This sculpture squirms awkwardly on the floor, while simultaneously trying to pull it’s self together and sit up straight. It might be inviting you to lie down, it might be waiting to spring into attack. It’s a little silly, but by sheer fact of its size, and the care that went into making it, you know you have to take it seriously.
I walked away from the piece still not sure what my feelings were, and I think that might be its success. Trouble embodies the process of negotiation and identification that takes place between intertwined individuals, and between the conflicting elements within a single person. Like Frida’s painting, it tells the story of marriage and divorce, of having someone to both fight against and swim towards, and then of being left alone, with only your other self.