Dorothy Grostern: Light Beings

By John K. Grande

Dorothy Grosternšs charcoal and pastel drawings are all about people. The walls or invisible barriers that separate or contain them are abstract, not really precise, more a symbol of some hidden force that goes beyond the material. The recurring motifs and figural layouts seen in these sensitively rendered works suggest that these people exist in a relationship not only to each other, in groups, or couples, or to themselves, but more importantly to the spaces they exist in.

Light is a central element in these works. It invades or recedes from some abstract or unknown source to invade and define the human form. Light also acts as a permeable container that defines these places and people, but only partially. The chiaroscuro effect Grostern uses builds a sometimes sombre, other times reflective atmosphere into the work. The atmosphere acts as a container for the soul. The people we see are as contained and constricted by the rooms and cube-like spaces as they are by their inability to escape their bodies. Bodies and architecture, both of these elements are only partially circumscribed, and seem to be engaged in a search for their own purpose. The implicit and expressed desire for a meeting of the souls or reconciliation, seen in the facial and bodily gestures of these figures, vanishes into thin air. Yet the way they are compositionally placed, arranged in tandem, positioned at oblique angles to one another, suggests that what they seek the most somehow escapes at the last moment, like a genie out of a bottle.

Dorothy Grostern does not draw her figures from life, but invents them. As she states: "I donšt often work from a model, which probably sounds strange because my work is of people. But models bring their personalities, which can intrude. I prefer somebody neutral." Some of the people Grostern draws into being seem to escape into self-reflection. Still others are resigned to a state of hesitant acceptance of some altered or abstract state of immolation. It is as if in not entirely accepting their own emotions they cannot entirely seize that of the other, which exists as a kind of enigmatic illusion in their consciousness.

The bodily stances and composure run the full gamete of emotional states, and they are indeed a delightful display of repose, inner reflection, loving embrace. But suspicion, and even jealousy are also sentiments the viewer who looks into these revealing scenes will witness. The bodies of these people are like light containers, that seem to float in these Euclidean non-spaces Grostern has brought into being. The anonymity of the place parallels the anomie and fleeting emotions these people embody. Grostern wants to express a state of being, not simply reify reality. In this sense she is not a realist in the true sense of the word. A state of being, in surpassing reality somehow resembles it all the more, for it is always a reflection of how we perceive it. If these fairly large scale works do celebrate the ordinary, encapsulate the tentative way life encompasses us without our realizing it, it may be to express a serene humility, a keen sense that none of us can escape the parentheses that circumscribe the lives we live. There is no fixed point we can find in these compositions that establishes a source for the light that circumscribes the bodies and spaces they inhabit...

Grosternšs people are like ghosts. They are in the process of moving through space, or exist in it, seem to want to to escape their bodies, maybe achieve some higher state of being. The spaces likewise are not comfortable or inviting, but instead environments that seem to encroach upon some potential serenity or composure. Whether in couples, alone, or segregated, they seem willing to accept this containment. In these "houses of the mind", or on the surface of these paper works, these illusory images of people are a superb analogy for the illusion of life itself.

Torn by desire, with desire, caught in the possessive gloom of their own past and present memories (alluded to by the beautiful light-dark contrasts seen in these works) Grosternšs people seem caught and trapped by the absurdity of their situation(s). The window-like panes of glass or light refractions, that establish a higher order of meaning in Grosternšs People series, are mental barriers harboured deep within ourselves. Not only does the containment contain, the awareness of this containment which is not just physical, constricts and alters onešs actions and reactions even further. What an irony!

In Convergences (2000) the embracing couple we see look more like ghosts or spirits that physical entities. The older woman in her undergarments in The Latecomer is not illustrious, nor is she bold. She is just absorbed by the realities of life. Two figures can be seen in Gone (1998). One leans on the next and both are nude. There is no gratification for one of them is leaving. The emotional state(s) of these people are unclear. We do not know if what is, or has, happened is good or bad, just that it has recently or is in the process of occurring.

This sense of the impossibility of knowing or being able to uncover a specific emotion into a specific event emboldens Grosternšs work with a great wisdom. These works suggest that this state of not knowing allows us inadvertently to accept the unknown with a greater confidence. Any symbolist rhetoric associated with the depiction of the human figure betrayed, aware, jealous, or in love, (in Expressionist artists like Edvard Munch or James
Ensoršs work for example) is thrown out the window. Grostern leaves this
angst-ridden baggage behind to replace it with an immeasurability, with
state(s) of being that exist in an ethereal non-space of the inner self. The Dreamer (1999) who looks to be contained in a glass box reminds one superficially of the figures in Francis Baconšs paintings, but these people do not react angrily or with violent to their situation. They seem to have become emancipated from themselves!

Some of Grosternšs latest Tiger drawings are mysterious, for here, the interaction - still mysterious - is between animal and human. The bright orange tigers with their stripes are depicted as majestic beasts. A built-in energy or tension is created in these unusual juxtapositions. Staircase 955 has memory stairs that are flooded with light in sharp black and white contrasts. We see a manšs head in side profile, and another evanescent shadowy figure stands nearby. There is an androgynous feeling to this uncomfortable, even unsettling situation. The same goes for Staircase 947. Here, three figures are combined uniquely by an aesthetic effect, of dark-light contrasts. Grostern is at her strongest here, for her use of light-dark surface effects, of interior spaces filled with innuendo creates a most succinct analogy for the forces of good and evil, and of a potentially redeeming spiritual catharsis. These emotions and realities are expressed in the simplest of ways using the devices of formal and compositional arrangement of space, light, and the human figure. We gather the sense that a time has passed, and these peoples, like all of us, are relatively unaware this is taking place.

Encapsulating all those features that make us human, yet rendering all of it with an acute sense of lifešs experience, Dorothy Grostern, depicts the container and the contained in tight, theatrical settings. Her People series captures the real state of contemporary culture, which can be found in the most intimate and contemplative of settings - the interior spaces we inhabit. These people are invisible to themselves as much as to others. Grosternšs People series seems to suggests that for all the self-gratification, or alternatively self-immolation, that are the hallmark of our age, there is an ambiguity to our innermost desires that is indeed tragic, if only for a fleeting moment in time. Grostern has seized something largely intangible in these textural, light sensitive charcoal and pastel drawings - what and how we really feel.