MANDEM and Janet Morrow
Image Description: "Hypermobility: Self Portrait." A mixed media / oil painting. A person of indeterminate gender stares with great intensity from the dark canvas. They are resting their chin on their hands and under this pressure the wrists bend with extreme hypermobility (indicative of a connective tissue disorder) until their crooked fingers press against their inner arm. The portrait is cropped right above the ears and shortly above the elbows, and though the figure is clearly unclothed, their chest is lost in shadows. The image has intense chiaroscuro, with a bright warm light coming from the upper left and a softer blue-green light coming from the lower right, creating a cinematic and somewhat unsettling mood. In places the painting has classical elements, but around the eyes it appears photorealistic.
We are MANDEM, the newest addition to the Deaf Poets Society editorial team. We will be writing about the wonderful artists featured in this issue, but first we would like to introduce ourselves. We self-identify as a conglomerate of non-binary gender, whose members are neurodiverse/disabled artists. Our self-portrait is above, demonstrating something about our own visual aesthetics and the way in which disability informs our work.
We are honored to be joining Janet as art editors. Our visual work is slightly less conceptual than hers, in part because our interest in the politics of representation has been translated into the faithful, sometimes hyper-real portrayal of the visceral body divergent. Yet behind our (somewhat retrospective) interest in figurative work is an entirely post-post-modern (metamodernist) conceptual drive. As Hollywood might spin it: *In a world where the crippled and mad and queer are hidden away from view, in a world of closets and asylums and hospitals, in a world where one must climb stairs to see a gallery full of white able-bodied male artists, in a world where we were invisible—representation matters.*
Even more importantly, self-representation matters. We believe that our bodies deserve a place in the theater of thought and that our voices (whether verbal or nonverbal) must be present in the dialogue of the art world. It’s time to queer the hegemonic narratives and likewise time to "disable" the contemporary art scene. We are passionate about being part of this journal because there is something inherently #cripplepunk (or #cpunk) about a journal made by and for people who self-identify as Deaf/disabled/chronically-ill/neurodiverse. Who better than artists and writers to give "an uncensored, unapologetic look into the lives of disabled people who are tired of being your pity porn"?
We haven't and won't publish inspiration porn. We're publishing work that's actually inspired.
Most of the artists this month are representative of this "behaving badly" spirit of #cpunk. Take Karrie Higgins, who uses shocking self-portraiture and word art as if simultaneously channeling Cindy Sherman, Virginia Wolf, and Barbara Kreuger in order to challenge the medical abuse she has suffered at the hands of an ableist medical system. Taking a media form—the meme—so often used for inspiration porn, Higgins reclaims it as a protest and a howl.
Peter James also approaches a traditional form and repurposes it to express a neurodivergent experience. His series on face blindness takes notes from figure painting 101’s insistence on the “correct” proportions of the face, and uses that to try to reconstruct an anatomy blurred by propagnosia. The grids that cover his subjects' mouths reflect the grids he imposes also on his landscape painting, as if to show the way that the human face is a landscape to be mapped, as if to say that any other reading is only pathetic fallacy. These works spoke to us on an extremely personal level—face blindness, and the compulsive need to learn portraiture as a coping technique, drove much of our early experimentation with the human figure. But where we (and other face blind portraitists such as Chuck Close) have let progagnosia lead us into the realm of hyperrealism (overcompensate much?), Peter James embraces the irregularity, letting it speak through his art.
We had the great honor of knowing artist Amanda French during her MFA residency at Florida State, where she was a cohort (co-conspirator) with us. This piece was created in a time of frustration and rage as Amanda fought to balance health irregularities, impending surgery, and the critical demands of an MFA faculty whose ideas on art diverged radically from her own. It represented a tremendous change (breakthrough?) in her approach to art, one that at the time I doubt she knew whether to name in its execution an Icarian fall or a Daedalian flight. MANDEM first queried this piece to show at our curation of an art show "Rape Culture," which looked at it in the context of bodily autonomy and trauma. Amanda later used this as one of the seeds for her thesis project, Merry Christmas Frank, which examined the story of her grandfather’s exposure to atomic bomb testing that led to his early demise and may have contributed to her own illness. Now known as "Page 11," the piece remains essentially nameless. The strength of its vision lies in no small part in its mutability—the rage, the sense of reaction and response, the struggle, the grasping of hands against flesh against color—the sense of being trapped within the body of space—these are emotions that function equally well to embrace the horror of one's own body failing, of doubt and frustration in a system that was not made for you, of the loss of bodily autonomy during assault, and of the generational violence and illness that persists. I hope that all those seeing it will find in it their own rage against the boundaries.
Barbara Ruth describes herself as a physically disabled neurodivergent artist who is "drawn to the edges, the in-between." Her photography rebels against traditional ideas of intention as she allows accidents and experimentation to create images that are not quite abstraction, not quite realism—and these jagged high-contrast images refuse to situate themselves either as photography or digital manipulation.
Only our student artist this month might be said to be well behaved. Nimue's paintings are filled with radiant light and joyful use of color and movement. She describes them as a way to relax and feel hopeful and connected to nature and the cycle of life. Her vibrant birds and swirling suns seem to pulse with the possibility of renewal and escape. One isn’t surprised to hear her speak of finding inspiration and hope for the future in her work. We're not ashamed to admit that we're glad this seven-year-old, despite her chronic pain condition, is not yet as furious with the world as many of her elders. Part of us says "give her time," but perhaps it is also true that for all of us there is a sense of hope and renewal within even our most angry or disillusioned work. What is protest, after all, but a deep rooted admission that we know things could be better? We demand change because change is possible, and we demand to be seen and understood because we find ourselves worth seeing and worth understanding. There is a certain naiveté in Nimue's blue birds and flowers, but also a deep truth of our interconnectedness to nature and to one another.