Arts & Culture

Chronicling a never-ending plunge into grief

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Monday, April 2, 2012

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – we are taught to think of grief as a rationally ordered journey that progresses through five stages with relief at the end.

But in Clara Lieu’s exhibit “Sinking,” a collection of 20 drawings on display at the Brown/RISD Hillel Gallery through April 4, the oppressive influence of depression offers no such order or relief.

Lieu, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, selected the works for the exhibit from a collection of 50 self-portraits called “Falling” based on her personal experience battling depression. Each drawing is a close-up of the artist’s face ­- from piece to piece, she appears to grow older and younger, the lines and features on her face growing or contracting. In most of the pieces, Lieu’s facial features are contorted into an extreme expression of pain and suffering.

In Self-Portrait No. 7, her teeth are bared, her nose scrunched up and her eyes cast towards the heaven, but whether she is staring with anger or seeking some elusive hope of respite is unclear.

In the catalogue for “Falling,” Lieu aptly compares the lips surrounding her likeness’s clenched teeth to a giant worm. They inspire, as does the whole exhibit, equal parts fascination and disgust.

Other drawings show the calmer side of despair. The woman stares directly out from the canvas in Self-Portrait No. 10. Her lips are pursed and her eyelids sag. The fatigue that comes from battling feelings of anxiety is clear in her long face.

In Self-Portrait No. 46, her eyes are shut but not clenched, and her face looks demurely away. Large portions of the face are cast in total shadow with light gnawing at the edges. But even that light, the blank space on Lieu’s page, appears to be just another shade of gray. It does not offer a way out. Rather, light and dark spaces alike conspire to make the viewer feel trapped.

The display of the drawings contrasts  the chaos and claustrophobia of the contents. The 20 portraits, each of them four feet by three feet, hang in a straight line on two walls of the Hillel Social Hall. From a distance they seem, while emotive and turbulent in their content, clean and even polished in their visual execution.

But viewed from up close, each drawing is a collection of erratically crosshatched lines – a collection of flaws, emotions and struggles that, like their creator, form a perfect mosaic of humanity and its complications.