Eleanor Spiess-Ferris

Zaks Gallery

Though Eleanor Spiess-Ferris immerses her viewers in fully staffed dreamworlds where norms of logic must be surrendered, there is method within her topsy-turvy universe. Spiess-Ferris introduces just enough reality into her pictures to allow her to circumvent it. Indeed, she uses the trappings of existence as a bitter corrosive, turning reality in upon itself.

Woman as nature, woman as victim, woman as life-giver, woman as indefatigable source or recipient of love, sex, pain, and nurturing—each takes a turn in her cosmology. Spiess-Ferris regularly renders these women with missing limbs or large empty cavities in their torsos, gaps that are filled by odd wooden armatures or bizarre structural supports. Sometimes these women are planted directly in the ground, suggesting some odd arboreal hybrid, and in other pictures they sport plumage like birds. Spiess-Ferris imbues these metamorphosing figures with metaphorical resonances. Humanness does not quite describe the psychic orientation of these figures, and their combinant bodies splendidly reflect their bifurcated state. These are women caught between states of existence, left in some nether zone where their despair is heightened and made physical.

Not surprisingly, the world these women inhabit is almost always a somber and attenuated one, peopled with curious descendants of Punchinello, Harlequin, and Columbine. Spiess-Ferris’ brooding and melancholic mannequins flit across crazy proscenia in search of narratives, as if in some Watteau painting gone rotten and dank. She revels in the tremendous ironic tragedies inherent within a poisoned commedia dell’arte, finding there a parallel universe to support her ruminations. Drowning Man, 1991, seems almost a tarot card for trauma, or some Felliniesque scene of dysfunction. A large, bald woman stands listlessly in a denuded forest, still dressed in circus tights that do not obscure the fact that much of her body is hollow and formed of twigs. Behind her an impish fool stares out at us; he holds a strange fishing rod on which he has hooked a man floating by in a river by his tongue. Images such as this are filled with narrative gusto, and not too much mediation is allowed to dilute Spiess-Ferris’ force of fancy. Literal meaning remains elusive, but an atmosphere of palpable disquiet and loss permeates the work throughout.

The Reluctant Groom, 1991, seems a final inversion of beauty on parade. A tiny, skeletal, gnomish man rides into a forest of huge tree-women, physically dwarfed by their scale and psychologically crushed by their complex emotions. He is alive but blank, while the women are trapped but aware. In both of these paintings male characters give the images their titles, while the activities of the women provide their meaning and depth. There has always been liberation in fantasy, and Spiess-Ferris’ recent work harvests some of this plenitude.

James Yood