On first seeing the rough composite sketches for this latest series, I was overcome by a sense of having met these characters somewhere before - not in any other visual art form I knew of, but rather as a cast of pantomime characters tangled and distorted like those conjured in the demi-consciousness of pre-sleep. Descriptors floated to the surface unbidden, terms such as "masquerade", "the Masque", "animus", "pantomime", terms that have remained solidly embedded in my mind as guideposts to viewing this body of work. But in order to appreciate the evolutionary genealogy and psychological implications underlying these images, I find it instructive to look back to the early influences that have guided the artist's development.
In the early 1980s, Denise Carson Wilde first established a letterpress business, and for some 14 years, text dominated her work in the form of book arts, largely comprising her own poetry embellished with ding bats - or printers' non-text decorative characters. Gradually moving away from letterpress and into the visual art arena in the early 1990s, the artist began exploring more traditional printmaking techniques, developing a significant body of intaglio prints, monotypes and mixed media prints. Over the past decade however, Denise Carson Wilde's imagery and process have undergone a metamorphosis, a costume change from a highly formalized and controlled hand to a more intuitive, elemental approach to drawing. In late 1993, Denise Carson Wilde presented an exhibition of visual and poetic works entitled "You're a Nasty Lover" . Even though abstract qualities had taken reign in her imagery by this time, evidence of her formal draughtsmanship continued to inform these works. By 1997, line and form had given way to an intuitive, refreshingly childlike treatment through the application of various drawing techniques including monotype. At this time, Wilde began reintroducing printers ding bats into her drawings, combining the unstructured line drawings with the rigid structure of metal type, thereby creating a storyboard of deeply personal imagery replete with all the whimsy and charm of primary text books, while at the same time revealing a barely-concealed razor's edge of not-so-charming reality. The resulting body of work was exhibited in late 1997 as "Butterfly Eyes", a concoction of images of little boys rolling barrel hoops, butterflies, sofas, swallows, marionettes, and other perplexingly unconnected dingbat characters merged with over-sized drawn heads equipped with thought or conversation bubbles. The juxtaposition of the "real", or that which we recognize as a part of our visible life with the "unreal", or those elements of fancy common only to the comic strip world, forced the question as to what was, in fact, the true nature of the reality being expressed.
Enter the present cast, stage left, a highly colorful troupe decked in medieval garb complete with cod pieces, belled caps, leggings and fluted waistcoats, some wearing animal masks, some depicted in preposterously distorted shapes, body parts pieced together helter-skelter much like those trisected figures resulting from the famous 1920s Parisian surrealist drawing game "Le Corps Exquis". The ding bats so prevalent in earlier works have disappeared, totally supplanted by these loosely drawn figures. As the characters parade across the surface or face each other in conversation, a social atmosphere is established reminiscent of a medieval gala, a fete, an event at which disparate personalities intermingle in the security of anonymity, and I am drawn again to the concept of this body of work paralleling the tradition of the masquerade.
Considering the metaphor of the masquerade, its pre-Enlightenment origins, and the inherent social psychology behind the rite, certain observations arise. Historically, the "Masque", or masked ball was spawned in an age when human imagination, individual thought and self- expression were not tolerated, when dress code and social mores were strictly defined by Church and Court. Class distinctions at all levels were reflected in the dress of the day, and acceptable interactions among classes were restricted to formalized circumstances. Courtly attire was reserved for those at court, and perhaps the only player in the cast capable of buffooning dress codes and established practices with impunity was the jester himself, the clown engaged to mime his betters and generally prod the sensibilities of the upper classes.
That is, with the exception of the masquerade. The opportunity to dress out of character, out of class, to present oneself as someone or something other than reality. The opportunity to speak from behind the mask, to look without being recognized, to express ideas which may have otherwise been prohibited either by conscience or by class. From a psychological point of view, the question of dress defining gender or character, or mask expressing personality or spirituality lends an intriguing focal point to the understanding of these works. Many of these figures are clad in the traditional medieval courtly dress of the male youth, or the gender-masking robe of the elderly apothecary or magician. Facial features (be they masks?) characteristically imply either manhood or animalistic images, that alluring "animus" which supplies the electric charge for all that we are passionately committed to. According to The Concise Oxford, the "animus" is defined as "the animating spirit", or secondarily and perhaps more to the point in this case, "the masculine part of a woman's personality". To travel down this road a bit further, if we consider all of these characters to be male, all of them to be masked, all of them to represent the "animus" of the artist's personality, what we then have is a unique pictorial expression of a reality embodying both masculine and feminine perception, a fully-realized sense of self that may not have surfaced without the artist's finely tuned awareness of her own psychological makeup, and of the confusing and sometimes deceptive realities of the world she inhabits.
Carol Nymark is the executive director of Malaspina Printmakers Society in Vancouver, B.C. and writes about contemporary art.