Masks of Beauty and Despair
The art of Martha Ross Edelheit deals with the issue of masquerade, but not in the traditional Freudian sense. In her paintings and sculptures women do not have to hide their "lack" behind the mask of masculinity or excessive femininity, because there is nothing lacking. The female figures are not fetishized, they do not need power to be given to them from outside, they redeem their subjectivity with their own presence. The realm of Edelheit's figures is populated by men and women who are equally nude, equally exposed, equally strong and sexual, but also equally vulnerable.
Nudes started to emerge in the paintings after the artist had first struggled to make her decision between figurative and abstract art. By 1961 she started to paint small erotic watercolors and huge "wallpapers" filled with nudes. Soon she was using live models and painting them "bodily, as they were, not glorifying or idealizing them."
The sense of materialsacrylic paint, string, or thin meshon the "skin" of the paintings is very important to Edelheit. She avoids building any illusion of space or depth into the paintings, but her nudes have taken three-dimensional presence in a long series of small sculptures of masked acrobats: people walking on a tightrope or on their hands. For the artist these figures represent challenge and risk-taking, being on the very edge of one's own skills and resources. The bodies are muscular, athletic, sturdy. Their feet are heavy even though their bodies might fly, and in spite of their reckless tricks they seem to be really down-to-earth characters. If they are hiding something behind their masks, it is fear. As a matter of fact the small clay or bronze figures combine also a great deal of humor with their apparent fearlessness.
The way Edelheit represents women is especially meaningful in the over-sexualized and sexist American media atmosphere ruled by moral double-standards. In her imagery nakedness does not mean exposing idealized, "picture-perfect" stereotypes of beauty. On the contrary, the bodies she shapes are extremely ordinary and familiarso familiar that it is very easy to identify with them. No wonder her works have constantly been read as feminist statements. For the artist herself the subject matter has, however, a more generally humane quality, not so much gender-oriented. Her humanism is based on her profound dealing with the sense of loss. "Life in this century has become expendable, disposable, and this has had a tremendous impact on my thinking," she says.
In recent paintings the tragicomic circus, which used to dominate the mood of her earlier sculptures, is over, and all that is left is grief, mourning, the purely tragic side of life. The time has come to take off the masks. In a couple of large canvases (Copperhead Mountain II and Masks from the Bearers of Pain on the Mountain of Despair) we can see piles of masks without faces, some of them crying, some of them grinning in a weird way, as if they were laughing despite the pain. Many of them are remembrances from newspaper photographs, but after stylizing they resemble rather the raw, pale faces of Japanese Butoh dancers, detached from their convulsive bodies. One of her recent paintings, "Pain Dancers," is actually an homage to the Butoh choreographer, Min Tanaka.
Edelheit describes Butoh as "a total revelation" for her in terms of making art: "Butoh translates the tormented depths of the unconscious and the extremes of Artaud into a communal theatre. Tiny movements build to violent gestures. In Butoh, the abstract form has found a purpose. And beauty. It is so raw that it is frightening." In her own images she deals with very similar kinds of sensibilities: approaching beauty through despair.
Edelheit's visions of mourning can help the viewers of her art to deal with their own pain, no matter how concrete or abstract that may be. In her self-expression the artist has found a way to explore the realm of the deeply personal and yet find moving cross-sections with the common and societal experience.