Susan Weil at Sundaram Tagore – New York – artist gives visual interpretation to work of writer James Joyce
Susan Weil’s 21-piece pictorial salute to James Joyce, accompanied by excerpts from his novels and related text, might well have fallen into illustration. Happily, the delightfully inventive, variously formatted paintings, drawings, collages and assemblages for “Eye’s Ear for James Joyce” by this prolific New York artist (who shows more often in Sweden than here) do much more than that. Weil, whose career spans several decades, has already devoted almost two of them to this project, undaunted by the author’s famously difficult late prose. Seen for the first time in this country, this witty, whimsical suite of works wears its erudition lightly, dexterously serving up a double dose of the celebrated Irish modernist in art and text, inspiring those of us who have never quite read all of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake to try again; for others, Weirs ensemble might serve as an introduction to both Joyce’s words and world.
The show began with a crumpled Joycean hat of handmade paper, hung in the gallery window, a Picassoesque full-face/profile sketch of the author outlined on its crown, identifiable by its subject’s steel-rimmed spectacles and prim mustache. Portraits of Joyce in one guise or another abounded, including an actual mackintosh as doppelganger, and they were the highlights of the show. Among them were the central James Joyce II, a full-length cubistic portrait of the writer assembled from a dozen smaller canvases, and a simpler paper version, both 2003. Weil presents the writer from various angles, close up and closer–multiple takes on hatted head, supple hands, vested midriff, trousered legs, shod feet, like a cinematic reconstruction pieced together from a series of stills–in what Joyce biographer Richard Ellman called “his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg under the instep” and “suffused with sadness.” There was also a lovely sequence of five small paintings–from flat canvas to projecting triangular wedges to a cube flushed with lilting colors–three of which concentrate on Joyce’s pensive face.
Other works conjured up stories from Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero, as well as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, pressing into service various bits of lace, veiled images, sheets of music, letters, mythological creatures, a spill of delicate paper leaves, found thrift-shop paintings and other objects. The multitextured and patterned Wandering Rocks II (2003), one of the show’s most complex assemblages, comes with a numbered diagram linking each of its 18 sections with lines from Ulysses. Irish Stew (1995)–whose title also describes the show’s theme–is a triptych dominated by a dancing figure costumed in a red skeleton suit who shares the black field with a floating, barely discernible head of Joyce, among other elements. The visual language of this sweetly sad and comic tour through Joyce country imaginatively reprises the richness of his Ireland, a reality overlaid with myth, touching on his use of realism, symbolism and wordplay, his stream of consciousness and frequent disjunctions of time and space. Weil’s redaction is brilliant.
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