Clara Lieu’s exhibition interprets her personal inward journey that she explores in several media. Her drawings, prints and photography, constructed from her own three-dimensional sculpture all explicate her ideas. Her large-scale drawings almost overwhelm the viewer with their raw feeling. This work is a journey of emotion—a tour de force of technical virtuosity and a tenacious examination of her theme of self-discovery.
The work is complex and layered. Lieu’s drawings lead the viewer into a chaotic, shifting world—figures fight to be seen or erased. The intensity of the mark making echoes her inward struggles. These images are not for the faint-hearted.
Emerge no. 3 presents a looming central nude figure, but on either side of her faces and partial bodies seemingly stream like ghost souls from her sides. These visages communicate highly charged emotional states while the central figure has very little affect. The swirling figures are like the Greek Furies, frightening the onlooker. These drawings have expressionist power and passion, evoking the early 20th century German artist, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz favored using black and white, as we see with Lieu. In Kollwitz’s 1905 etching, Sharpening the Scythe, the shadowed figure with huge hands holds a tool, and as she strokes it sharp she appears to be imagining a use for it that is not benign. The unsettling content and violent mood are in opposition to a feminine archetype. Many of Lieu’s figures share that sensibility—they are ferocious.
Lieu, like numerous contemporary artists, works her ideas out in more than one medium. She creates resin facemasks that she theatrically lights and photographs. These images remind the viewer of the eighteenth-century sculptor, F. X. Messerschmidt’s intensive self-portraits of emotional states. They evoke the Sturm und Drang school of the Romantic age. Lieu’s Hiding #21 is a face that emerges screaming, eyes tight shut, from a dark background. The tension in the muscles is visceral. The contorted mouth seems over-filled with teeth; the unseeing fierceness of the face expresses events gone too far, and out of control.
In her mezzotints, the mask is dark on dark. Hiding # 22 seems soulless with blank eyes and a twisted expression reminiscent of the Greek Comedy mask without any semblance of lightheartedness. This compressed fury threatens us. We feel as blind-sided as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. The mouth seems poised to snarl, “I’ll get you….and your little dog too." 1 Untamed feelings are usually bottled up—films, theater, opera and visual art provide an outlet for us have a catharsis of feeling as described by Aristotle in his Poetics.2 Clara Lieu is both exploring her inner self but allowing us to do so as well. The Wicked Witch of the West is still with us, not yet a harmless puddle on the floor.
The works command attention with their size and intensity of feeling. As with a wreck on the highway we can’t turn away, our voyeurism unsettling us by our relief that we aren’t the ones involved.
Professor of Practice
Department of Art and Music, Simmons College
2014 catalog, Trustman Gallery at Simmons College
1 The Wizard of Oz, A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film 1939
2 Aristotle, Poetics, 350 BCE. Translation by S. H. Butcher