The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession

This review of The Life of the Mind at New Art Gallery Walsall was published in Art Monthly issue 344, March 2011

‘The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession’ is the culmination of Patrick Brill’s 18-month residency period at the New Art Gallery Walsall. Better known as Bob & Roberta Smith, Brill and his multiple personae perform separate duties as exhibition curator and participating artists, respectively. While it is possible, and perhaps even necessary, to accept the work of Bob & Roberta Smith as the result of a unique male/female psyche, it is important to recognise the curatorial decisions made here as Brill’s own.

Taking its title from a line in Barton Fink, an early Coen Brothers film depicting a paranoiac vision of writer’s block, ‘The Life of the Mind’ includes the work of 28 artists, ostensibly dealing with the psychic peaks and troughs of creative labour. However, there is more at play here than what Truman Capote referred to as the ‘self-flagellation’ of artistically gifted individuals. At the exhibition’s heart is Jacob Epstein’s First Portrait of Esther (with long hair), 1944, a bronze sculpture of his then 15-year-old daughter Esther Garman. The sculpture is one of a number of works given to Walsall by Esther’s mother Kathleen Garman in 1973, due to the galleries close proximity to her childhood home of Wednesbury. For Brill the first encounter with this piece was an epiphanic experience, prompting deeper excavation into the Epstein archive: a collection of letters, documents and personal effects that belonged to the Epstein family, purchased by Walsall in 2007 from Anne and Annabel Freud, daughters of Esther’s sister Kitty Godley. Explained in the Bob & Roberta Smith work entitled See Esther Walsall’s Mona Lisa, 2010, the many tragic twists and turns in Esther’s life provided the central exhibition themes to be explored. Brill’s belief that Esther was resisting her father’s gaze informed a decision to feature female artists who, according to the gallery’s notes, ‘expose the myth of the great male artist who has a special insight into the minds of his more frail female subjects’. This impulse to decentre the hegemony of the male gaze is accompanied by a desire to focus on the archive’s many narrative arcs, resulting in an exhibition in three parts. ‘The Life of the Mind’ is by turns an exhibition on artists dealing with creativity and mental health problems, an archive and vitrine display, and a survey of feminist art.

Chris Ofili’s ‘The Visit Series’, 1993, beautifully intricate patterns made of hundreds of dots, provides a somewhat sanitised version of the urgent repetition seen in Yayoi Kusama’s two canvases hanging in the adjoining room. The vast ‘infinity nets’ of her polka dots leer out like dozens of yellow cat’s-eyes in Infinity Dots OPQRT, 2008. What have seemed like decorative gestures elsewhere (particularly at the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Walking in My Mind’) become demonstrations of a fevered compulsion here. Daniel Johnston’s felt-tip portrait I’ve got something on my mind, 2003, is a playfully coloured picture of a plump blonde with a small blue elephant on top of her head. Positioned next to Jeff Keen’s film, the cartoonish Flik Flak, 2003, Johnston’s piece seems positively jubilant. But there is a darker side to these works, infused as they are with the aura of mental illness. While the painful truth of an unrelenting cognitive dissonance is often hidden from public view, the actual day-to-day realities of manic depression and schizophrenia are both terrifying and cruelly debilitating. Unfortunately, for most sufferers these conditions and their attendant symptoms are not mutually exclusive. It is a state of affairs painfully illustrated in the Epstein archive.

The three vitrines featured in ‘The Life of the Mind’ contain letters, pictures and documents belonging to, or regarding, Esther and her older brother Theodore Garman. In Esther’s vitrine, photographs show her as a young woman full of life: a teenager squinting in the sun in one, a vampish proto-beatnik in another. Two events led to her suicide in 1955 at the age of 25: the death of her brother Theodore in 1954 and the suicide of a friend, whose marriage proposal she had refused, later that same year. Theodore, a paranoid schizophrenic, died of a heart attack during a botched surprise sectioning organised by Epstein and his partner (Theodore’s mother) Kathleen Garman. Near to the vitrines hang two darkly expressionistic paintings by Theodore. Both The Old Forge, Chelsea (I), 1953, and The Old Forge, Chelsea (II), 1953, are dense canvases covered in inch thick layers of paint, seemingly raked into form by Theodore’s fingers. Due to an initially adulterous relationship with their mother Kathleen, Epstein never publicly acknowledged Esther and Theodore as his own children until after their deaths. The effect of this continued denial must have taken its toll on them both, and the domineering figure of Epstein pervades the melancholy letters of Esther and the paranoid delusions of Theodore.

In the video work Shadow Deeds, 2009-10, Anne Bean’s collection of filmed actions begins with her screaming the word ‘mortality’ in a packed shopping centre. In various settings, reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s early works, Bean tests the limits of her body through a number of torturous physical trials. The uninhibited nature of this and other works on show – including Jessica Voorsanger’s Andy Warhol Was Controlling My Life Too Much, 2010, and Helen Chadwick’s Piss Flowers, 1991-92seem to give voice to Epstein’s sculpture of Esther, articulating something beyond the bland passivity registered in her ‘hidden gaze’. The inclusions of Tracey Emin’s The Last Thing I Said To You Was Don’t Leave Me Here II, 2000, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sorrow, 1882, seem at odds with this direction and the exhibition’s stated intention to dislodge, or at least trouble, the male gaze. Both pieces depict the naked female body as a fragile, almost shameful thing. Perhaps to counteract this somewhat jarring element each image is accompanied by a conciliatory interpretation panel designed by Bob & Roberta Smith, an action repeated with every work in the exhibition.

At points ‘The Life of the Mind’ can seem a haphazard and diffuse affair, its multi-themed nature leading to loose ends and curatorial conflicts of interest – that Bob & Roberta Smith have the most works in the show is certainly a cause for concern. But, to insist on logic being the overriding principle in an exhibition set to explore the more irrational and impulsive aspects of the creative mind would be to miss the point. Too often the subject of art and mental illness is diluted by displays foregrounding the romantic side of compulsion or the curiousness of so-called outsider artists. By allowing us an unflinching glimpse into the darker regions of the Epstein archives, Brill and the New Art Gallery Walsall have created a thoroughly compelling exhibition with significant emotional pull: a welcome deviation from the innocuous.

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