Powerful Empathies

Marion Wagschal's bodies bear the weight of the human condition.

Marion Wagschall: The Melancholy of Carnivores (2014). Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 43 inches.
Marion Wagschall: The Melancholy of Carnivores (2014). Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 43 inches.

No Beast is there without glimmer of infinity,
No eye so vile nor abject that brushes not
Against lightning from on high, now tender, now fierce.
– Victor Hugo, La Legende des siècles

To suggest that Marion Wagschal is an acute observer of the human condition is a rather lamentable understatement. She possesses an optic that is quartzite in its clarity, has huge appetite and is always hungry. Her subject is alterity and its discontents. She has been called a merciless documentarian of dolour, abjection and suffering in the life world but the truth is rather more complex. Her applied paint, which seems so perfect an instrument for defenestration, is often more of a protective cowl, a guardian of selfhood and otherness – and a palpable barricade against the culture of hate.

Still, having said that, her work reminds us of what noted French feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva once said:

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned.”1

The pursuit of abjection has never been more radiant or sustained than in the works included in her recent exhibition at the Musee d’art de Joliette, which ran from February 4 to April 30, including a group of recent paintings and-an expansive sampling of small-and-large-scale drawings.

Marion Wagschal: Colossus (2016).

At the heart of the exhibition lies a monumental nude self-portrait – a mesmerizing feminist icon and triumph – entitled Colossus (2016). In this hectic collision of a retelling of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the powerful subversion of Jenny Saville, the artist is literally posed laid out on the ground with a large skull placed between her open legs. The Lilliputians are nowhere present (although they might be her viewers by proxy) but the figure is rooted as though bound to the ground and an eerie tension abides as though the figure is posed between two worlds, one of life, the other death. Strange atmospheric rifts open up in the background space, a perforated scrim between two states of being with the suggestion of coals of a fiery furnace forever burning at the point of intersection. This painting is remarkable for the moral courage one senses enabled its creation, the cyclic nature of human reality it implies, and the extraordinary technical virtuosity of its making. It is one of her finest paintings to this date and, by any standard, a masterwork.

In The Melancholy of Carnivores (2014) Wagschal opens up a window on the whole wounded madhouse of our time (as Paddy Chayefsky once called the hospital). But this is no hospital. This intermingling of the animal and the human is one where the animal comes out on top. Wagschal has always captured the denizens of the animal kingdom with rare verisimilitude. The fox, the pitbull, the boy child with the tail, all have their parts to play in a latter-day morality play. This painting, with its carnivalesque onslaught of figures both infirm and terrifying, marks, as Kristeva says, the sublime point at which the abject collapses in a burst of beauty that overwhelms us—and “that cancels our existence.” [2]

In Trim (2013), Wagschal essays a particularly moving treatment of the infirm and dementia, with its wheelchair bound figure about to receive a shave, but it is not without its ambiguous elements, notably the straight razor held before the man’s face, about to make its perilous descent. Too close a shave? The painting pivots between care and terror like an optical illusion in 3D.

The drawings are proverbial incubators for her paintings. They are also records of progress and, at their best, are equal to her paintings. Several studio visits over the last many years have impressed me with the expansiveness of her drawing project and the exemplary nature of the works themselves. Over fifty of these works on paper give a robust sampling of her practice. Across the full breadth of a purview, vast and uncompromising, these works are riveting. They offer a poetic catharsis at the crux of her empathic figuration. The visual capture of Wagschal’s hungry optic is delivered onto the support lightning-quick and with unerring grace, both technical and curatorial, and often fringed with fire.


Marion Wagschall: Tales from the Schwarzwald as Told by My Mother (detail, 2013)

Wagschal obsesses over huge acreage of human damage and the unbearable minutiae of the quotidian. This is her great gift. Her hand is a kind of voice, and her optic a mirror that magnifies what it consumes by several orders of magnitude, and the flesh jacket in its descent through time receives its just due like nowhere else in contemporary painting.  This speaks to her integrity, I think. She is unafraid of risk, particularly when it comes to truth-telling at its most painful and human. She will dilate on details that, whether they be related to the Holocaust and Jewish history and her upbringing in Trinidad, or the care ward, faces in the street or political obscenities, are immensely revealing – and mostly unsettling in their mien.

In Tales from the Schwarzwald as Told by My Mother (2013), the portrait of her mother and a photograph of her grandfather, point to the artist’s desire to memorialise what she has lost (her grandparents died in the Holocaust). In the painting, the heap of dolls itself summons up the sheer bludgeoning power of abjection. Again, Kristeva:

“In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children’s shoes, or something like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a Christmas tree, for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is sup- posed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.” [3]

The drawings, numinous integers of process, are limned with the sublime. Because she understands abjection so well and is so preternaturally alert to its presence, Wagschal can name it with tremendous specificity in images that have all the moral authority of Celine. But this is no episodic voyeurism. We sense an abiding care for alterity, and this thematic compassion often wins out over the rigors of her Neue Sachlichkeit lineage.

Curiously, Wagschal brings in the animal almost as a sort of moral remedy, and not, as one might expect, a specimen indigenous to the symbolic space of abjection. If abjection is truly a portent of narcissism, well, that pertains to humans, not animals, here. The animal is seen as more inherently noble than the human. The artist’s sketchbooks are covered with endearingly naturalistic mice scampering across their pages. In Song for a Dead Coyote (2016), a woman in a diaphanous yellow dress clasps in her arms a dying coyote as though her life depended on it. In this dreamspace, the woman courageously essays an escape from the fragmented palimpsest, perhaps one that is about to be thwarted by the venomous snake on her right, which seems ready to strike her arm. The oneiric apace and one of nightmarish, violent dissonance collide here with harrowing suggestiveness, and one is tempted to see the woman as the artist once again.

Marion Wagschall: Song for a Dead Coyote (2015).

For Wagschal, if there is a moral to the story, it is her no-holds-barred drive to speak truth. In the intimate studies of her mother on Concordia University letterhead (where she taight for 37 years) and elsewhere in the drawings and the paintings, Wagschal sacralises truth in terms of first-level perceptual information.

I have said elsewhere that I have always considered her an Ambrose Bierce of the drawn and painted image but she shares lineage with two Freuds as well. (I mean both Sigmund and Lucian.) But, she is also a Celine of painting. I am quite sure that Wagschal, like Celine, like Bierce, savours the ice-like lucidity that comes from facing death head on. Like Celine’s Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan, 1936), Wagschal essays an innovative and unavoidable take on human suffering. However, if all is not sweetness and light in Wagschal’s feverishly painted world, all is not nightmare and night, either. Like the aforementioned endearingly human mice that populate her sketchbooks, treading across their pages like wary proprietors, there is humour, whimsy and a healthy measure of surreality as well.

The very line in a Wagschal drawing or painting vibrates with longing, and is invested with aching tenderness and explosive affect. The inscription of affect on the far side of images, to paraphrase Kristeva, is so precisely wrought as to uproot and interrogate us. Within the parentheses of the trilogy of paintings discussed above – Colossus, Trim and The Melancholy of Carnivores – Wagschal dilates meaningfully on what it means to be alive.



1. Julia Kristeva: Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1
2. Ibid, p. 210.
3. Ibid, p. 4.