Ten paintings by Mary Porterfield are on show in the Koehnline Museum of Art at Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, until January 25. This strong exhibition merits a special trip. Sharing the Koehnline are excellent landscapes by Nina Weiss.
When she’s not teaching art or making it, Porterfield works with hospitalized Alzheimer’s patients. Though the odds against success are prohibitive, she wishes that she could do more for these people and feels remorse for her personal shortcomings and failures.
Porterfield puts these emotions into paintings of tornadoes, erupting volcanoes, and more, which she combines with religious narratives. She sets these natural disasters in bare, deeply eroded mountainous landscapes that recall the Grand Canyon which left her “in awe of nature’s beauty and force” when she saw it.
Floods and waterfalls in Porterfield’s paintings suggest the possibility of drowning. We see canoes, which offer a hope of escape, but some have tipped over. Here and there, figures try to rescue the drowning with ropes.
Mary Porterfield, Perceiving the Brink (Detail), 2012; Courtesy of the Artist.
A closer look at these paintings reveals many figures, mostly female, who communicate with each other. This narrative comes from the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing and feelings of fear and helplessness as she witnessed nuns punish her classmates in school. Porterfield still practices the faith today, but with diminished fervor.
Porterfield’s figures are dressed in long, loose garments suggesting nuns, priests, monks, and religious acolytes. She draws the figure schematically, making no attempt at illusion. Eyes are black dots, for example. Some figures are solid and some are just outlined. People in shapeless gowns wander aimlessly or sit in wheelchairs, recalling the artist’s hospital experiences.
Saint-like figures in some of Porterfield’s paintings draw on their faith and courage to resist overwhelming forces. In other narrative scenes, a kneeling sinner confesses to a priest and a bishop wearing a mitre leads a procession. But we also see a nun holding a boulder over head that she will fling at a prone figure on the ground and people torturing a woman by tearing her bare breasts with pincers. There’s much more sin, guilt, anxiety, and fear of death and damnation in this work than Christ’s love for sinners, divine forgiveness, and acts of Christian charity.
Powerful animals appear in the paintings and all of them threaten. Huge lions dominate the skies. Giant hawks and eagles descend upon the crowds below. Buffaloes stampede down eroded valleys. Snakes and crocodiles menace.
Mary Porterfield, Wheeling in the Deep, 2012; Courtesy of the Artist.
Wheeling in the Deep (2012) is the most successful piece in this show. Instead of a harsh landscape, we see a body of water with reflections in it, a flat sky behind, and massive clouds in a backward C-shape. Painted on the clouds are Biblical figures, a seated woman, a benign lion, and more. The colors—blue, white, and gray-blue with touches of pink—are nicely balanced. This peaceful, quite beautiful work, Porterfield’s latest, suggests that she may be facing down her demons.
People packed together in Porterfield’s paintings float through the area in a stream, suggesting the influence of William Blake and Gustave Doré. The artist admires landscapes by painters of the Hudson River School and has learned much about color from them.
Porterfield feels a special kinship with Henry Darger, the Roman Catholic folk artist who worked in solitude to create a 15,145-page fantasy manuscript which he illustrated with mural-sized battle scenes. “Darger never expected his work to be seen,” she says. “I paint for my eyes alone and won’t compromise to please the public. That makes my work fearless.”
(Image on top: Mary Porterfield, Perceiving the Brink , 2012; Courtesy of the Artist.)