What is narrative art? In the 15th century, Alberti wrote his treatise Della Pittura dedicated to the highest form of art, the historia, or the history painting, what has been traditionally known as narrative. In the days of the early academies, prior to the 20th century, such as the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a hopeful nominee was required to paint an historia in the traditional sense, to gain admittance. Since the era of Modernism, and the advent of non-representational art, the notions of what a narrative can be have become more flexible, and have become malleable to the experience of conceptually understood or transcendently experienced art, where narrative is relational to understanding and the projection of meaning. Today, where there lacks a discourse and a work of art stands alone, as being in time is a paramount subject for the contemporary artist, narrative is not only a common tool, as it had been in the quattrocento, but a common theme to explore the parameters of in a post-historical context.
Making use of narrative is common for many Utah artists who employ narrative means in a more overt language, to imply that a story in the literal sense is occurring. There are many popular Utah artists whom employ such means. It is most often the case, that the artist is focused on the present, with scenes that might be farcical, but tend to be comprehensible, even if fantastical, with little of substance, little of meaning, little of real value, to concern the viewer, or connect the viewer with the past or future. In the case of these artists, it is their subjects, that tend to be gimmicky absurdity, and not refined surrealism, that are the driving force of their work. In this case, a narrative by such an artist, might become static, and loose much of the narrative aspect, as the viewer is caught in the moment of the here and now, without any universal meaning or substance with which the viewer might feel engaged.
How is the viewer engaged? An investment in one’s sensibilities into the content being viewed is a sure way to evoke a sense of engagement, and this is just what artist Corinne Geertsen does with sensitivity, finesse and a sense of humor, in canvases that she creates with a technique she calls digital photo collage. The artist, who grew up in Montana, studied drawing and painting at BYU, with a BA and an MFA, states that her works are “visual narratives about psychological situations.”
The difference is clear in “Picnic,” which is not really a picnic, but certainly as bucolic as any picnic should be, albeit on a tiny desert island, a desert island so small, it can fit its only inhabitants, the great lioness, gazing out to sea, and reclining on a bamboo mat, while reclining upon her, is a young girl. She is perhaps 12, and rests her elbow comfortably on the head of the lioness and her head on her palm, and wearing a lovely and bright pea green frock. This girl with chestnut hair stairs with the gaze of eternity into the eyes of the viewer. Behind each is the only other object that can possibly inhabit this small space, a palm tree.
Certain qualities about this image grip the sensibilities like a vice, taking hold and, stopping one in one’s path, causes the viewer to question who and what and where and why and when… and how? Most certainly the surreal element of the very lovely scene causes this line of question… it is nothing but impossible and only fantastical, and so much so that it causes a sense of detachment into its own reality that the viewer hopes to understand. The lioness is so at ease on her island, but how did she get there and why is she so content to stay? But it is the girl, resting atop the lioness, whom gives rise for such quizzicality. Why is this young girl, with a pale face and dark eyes in her Sunday best, sitting atop this lioness, and why does she have a look in her dark eyes so utterly tranquil that the viewer is sure she has been there since the beginning of time and will remain to see it through so content is she?
Here Geertsen has created a surreal word from which the viewer is totally detached, but evoked by certain signifiers causing certain sensibilities to transgress this detachment, such as a curious feeling of “otherness,” a sense of something present yet at the same moment distant, a feeling of timelessness, yet without being able to catch hold of any fragment of it, confrontation so close yet with a displacement as distant as the sea itself, and a wanting to get a grip on the reality of it and knowing that is a fruitless impossibility, and ultimately, having to let it simply be so.
A lesser sense of the impossible is evoked with “Tornado,” yet still, a sensibility of wanting to get a grip on the actuality of it possesses the viewer. A young girl in a dark violet frock dress sits restlessly in the center of a cushioned bench of teal green. Could she be a grandmother, a great-aunt in adolescence? Her historical presence is palpable felt yet genuinely brought to the present to incorporate the surreal space in which she herself has been displaced to. To her left is a painting; a large baroque gilded frame surrounds a composition with shrubs, a large sky, and a sinewy tornado. To her right is a much larger window. It is closed, and beyond, is another whirling tornado. Again, in this painting, there is a sense of surreal timelessness, of a duration that exists somewhere outside of time. Memory and recollection create meaning, filling in the canvas, giving life to the girl, and giving space to the sealed room by going beyond the window and connecting the phenomena inside the painting and outside the room. Again, it is the viewer sensibilities that respond to the indicators of the image, allowing for impossibility while acknowledging the possibility of the powers of cognition, of memory, of recollection, of attachment, connectivity, and the power over detachment.
As one approaches the pieces with a certain power of authority, that the sensibilities are not powerless, but have a place in this surreal discourse, that this surreality can come to life for sensible cognition, an entirely surreal canvas such as “Clouded” can become accessible, albeit distilled, as always, in its own reality and time. In “Clouded,” we see a woman standing tall astride a flying carpet. She is wearing a Victorian black dress, and her head, quite literally, is in a cloud. As surreal as this might be, as removed from one’s own reality as this canvas may be, one may find a connection with the flight of freedom, and relate the Victorian sensibility of the woman whom before the age of suffragettes has her shoulders bared, and her head in the clouds. A canvas such as “Grand Tour” does not need to be so far away. Again, agreeably, it exists in its own surreality, this baby astride a tiger, holding a Japanese parasol, both astride a large tractor tire, marching steadily onward. Yet the viewer need not question who, what, where, when, why, and how… but may join in the journey with them, feel the excited vigor of this baby who peers forward, and get “lost” in this narrative as one is intended to, as the viewer finds their access to memory, to recollection, to meaning, to adventure, to wonderment, to excitement, and to possibility, as the narratives of Corinne Geertsen become engaging, accessible, and if only for a few moments, entirely possible.