Brought to Light
Baila Litton’s @ 1point618 Gallery
As infants the first book we read, the first picture we admire is the human face, usually our
mother’s. We are literally born to respond to facial expressions, reflected in the deep
waters of our biological/emotional nature. It’s interesting to note that our facial muscles are
more complicated and numerous than those of any other animal, defining a specifically
human emotional range.
Baila Litton paints, draws, and patches together particular human faces, demanding
viewers’ attention with a primordial force that no other type of image could invoke. Litton’s
portrait series titled “Herstories” reads like an inner chapter of a basic text on how it is to
be human -- writ large. These twelve portraits on view at 1point618 Gallery measure on
average about 6 by 4 feet. Often taking as long as a year to finish, each complex study
explores the physical and psychological singularity of a given human being, presenting a
sketch not only of old age but gender, race, culture, and history.
Mother Harriet, for instance, was a close acquaintance of the artist. We aren’t given
specific biographical information about this African-American woman, but Litton’s
painstaking technique at least invokes a wealth of narrative detail. An impression of
intimate knowledge is ingrained in the work, augmented by an unusual background.
Surrounding Mother Harriet’s head are a number of her own black and white photographs,
scribbled over, distressed and half-obscured by a semi-transparent layer of encaustic wax.
Like ghosts or memories single figures and family groups hover, their now unrecognizable
faces almost entwined in the tight halo of Harriet’s silver-white hair, bearing messages from
other times and places. Along the collar of Harriet’s dress Litton has used a pencil to draw
a map of a life – the town where she was born and the journeys she made afterwards.
Most of the works in the series are composed on a grid of square pieces of extremely
delicate paper, bringing to mind very dry, aged human skin. On these Litton inscribes her
delicate lines, using pencil and pastel to transfer and translate each wrinkle, blemish,
mole, and hair from its photographic source. Mother Harriet’s features, for instance, are
almost lost in a maze of furrows and ridges -- and yet her eyes are arresting. Heavy-
lidded, they seem to wait resignedly, perhaps for the portrait to be done with, or the day to
be over, or the life to finally wind down. All the same there is also a sense of coiled energy,
still on tap, and oddly a hint of mild surprise, as if in reaction to an unusual thought.
Each of the twelve faces has its own emotional burden or message, and hides its own
secret. Bound up with Litton’s labor and the earthy, mysterious nature of her materials is
an inkling of matters concealed or withheld in the midst of an overabundance of visual
information. These lives – any lives, she seems to say -- are at bottom incommunicable,
the proper subject equally of awe and terror.
Several of the women depicted are Chinese. One starting point for this series was a
museum in China Town in New York City, where the photographs that these works are
based on were taken. In the museum was a collection of the tiny slippers that adult
Chinese women of even quite recent times wore during and after the long, excruciating
process of foot-binding. For Litton, I think, this terrible practice has served as a metaphor
for all the hidden suffering that people, and specifically women, of every race, nation, and
period, endure in the course of lives that seem at once too long and too short. We are all
bound by hard necessity, as well as by quite unnecessary-seeming cultural biases and
fads, not to mention the insanity of wars and the more subdued dementia of everyday life.
Why, these seamed, scarred faces seem to ask, have we suffered this much – so much
that it is as if each of us was sculpted as a model of pain?
Yet there is even more available to the careful eye in these mixed media works. Pain is
one thing, but there is also the energy of the artist herself, the powers of fascination and
personal responsibility brought to conception, labor, and craft; and there is comfort of a
kind revealed by the process of identification that these works, and any work in portraiture,
enact. It would be possible to stare at any of Litton’s twelve faces for hours and continue to
find new details embedded in the surface textures, inserted literally between Litton’s lines.
Belle is Navajo. Litton met her, along with two Apache women also represented at
1point618, at a meeting of the Senior Council of American Indians in Phoenix, Arizona,
which she was invited to attend two years ago. They spoke little English, and Litton spoke
neither the Navajo nor Apache languages, so direct communication was limited. But
afterwards Litton buried herself in all the materials she could find and built a brief history of
the Navajo nation, its poetry and myths, into the margins of Belle’s portrait, and into the
very lines of her face. “I lived at the library,” she says. “The Cleveland Public Library is a
wonder – it’s my best friend.”
A little bit like Chuck Close whose huge portraits can stretch our ability to process facial
information to the breaking point, Litton magnifies not only for optical effect but also in
order to alter the proportions of face-to-face relations, re-drawing boundaries between
what we perceive as image on the one hand, and as material or texture on the other. For
Litton that tension also helps to generate a dimension of spirit, delving into uncharted
depths of feeling.
Among Litton’s earlier interests was a fascination with tattoos. She remarks, “We’re all
tattooed – we all carry inner tattoos.” That ultimately is what she presents: a darkness
made visible, welling from the experiences of a lifetime. There is also light, in the women’s
eyes and in the grace of sheer attention that Litton lavishes on her subjects, stoking each
inch, almost every pore like the most ardent lover. Her attention becomes a mercy that
redeems her subjects from the oppression and pessimism of advanced age, from the
curse of mortality that we all share.
[Free Times 8/15/07]