by Megan Abrahams
Abundance and Devotion: The Art of Miriam Wosk
Santa Monica Museum of Art
January 19 to April 20, 2013
This captivating retrospective of the art of Miriam Wosk offered insight into her awe-inspiring universe, sparing neither its accompanying aura of dazzling light nor its disturbing underlying darkness. Her vast paintings, many enriched with elaborate elements of collage, are exceptional in their beauty, lavish in their detail, glittering with color and iridescence.
Paint was only one of an apparently infinite range of media in Wosk’s repertoire. She embellished her work with gold leaf, foil, crystals, pins, pearls, beads, sequins and cactus spines -- as well as formerly living animals like butterflies, coral, and starfish. Many of her large canvases are layered with intricate detail and shiny objects, enticing the viewer to linger, and gaze more deeply. She embarked on adventurous detours outside the conventional forms of expression. Among work included in the exhibit is a tapestry, Big Red, (2008, Jacquard tapestry with metallic silk threads and Swarovski crystals, 93 X 65 inches) which portrays a lobster and other marine creatures on a muted red background, embellished with intricate overlaid details, studded with crystals.
Many of her pieces show an evident fascination for the sea. Otherworldly, her imagery conjures up dream-like realms, with an aura of magical realism. In The Grotto, (2006, 66 X 119 inches) she created a panoramic underwater scene derived from her imagination. Emerging from the deep black background, are various glowing and glittering starbursts, pinwheels and wavy bands of color. Whimsical creatures with tentacles are interwoven, as well as sequins, collaged paper, pearls, glitter and the skeletons of actual starfish, sea urchins, coral and other organic materials. Breathtaking as a whole, the composition flows with harmony, undulates with color -- fluid -- as if propelled by a current through water.
While she was a great admirer of Frida Kahlo, Wosk did not emulate her. Still, her work is flavored with a heightened sense of drama to match that of Kahlo’s, along with intense color, dreamscapes of surreal imagery, elements of nature, a penchant for the macabre, and a distinctly feminine sensibility. Her series of gouaches on antique anatomy prints, in which she superimposes a lacy design of ornate blood vessels, is reminiscent of Kahlo’s heart and artery-baring imagery in paintings like, Las Dos Fridas. Where Kahlo included religious themes in her work and references to Mexican mythology, Wosk had a mystical side as well. She was interested in Eastern religions, Judaism, science and the Cult of Mary. References to spirituality appear in her work, as in Third Eye and Crown Chakra, (1994 paper collage, 29 X 23 inches), dominated by a single eye, with crystal-like rays above.
Her resplendent painting, The Golden Serpent (2007-2008, paper collage and painted metallic foil on canvas, 54 X 111 ¾ inches) has a spiritual undertone. In an essay by Robert Kushner in the catalogue for this exhibit, he suggests the snake may reflect Wosk’s own experience of the inner power of kundalini, or have a connection to the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl.
As in their art, there were parallels in the lives of these two female artists as well. Kahlo contracted polio as a young girl and suffered the disabling effects of a bus accident her whole life. Her paintings document the pain of her repeated miscarriages. Wosk too, experienced pain throughout her life, suffering the after-effects of injury from a plane crash while returning from a trip to Mexico as a young adult, as well as illnesses, ending with the cancer that gave her such a limited time to realize her artistic vision.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1947, Wosk knew she wanted to be an artist from a young age. After studying illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Wosk went on to establish a successful career as a commercial illustrator in New York in the 1960s and 70s. Her clean, Art Deco flavored illustrations conveyed a modern feminine perspective with a witty flair. In the satirical 1974 work, Kept Man, (1974, 20 X 16 inches, gouache on illustration board) for Viva Magazine, Wosk portrayed a naked man, languishing in an exaggerated black high heel shoe, a seascape with a starry sky in the background. The figure leans back, tauntingly, one leg crossed strategically to conceal key anatomical parts.
Wosk’s commercial work was featured in publications like Vogue, The New York Times, Esquire, Ms., and Harper’s Bazaar. The back gallery of this exhibit is devoted to these stylized illustrations, including examples of her many covers for Ms. The artist lived and worked in Santa Monica for more than three decades. Wosk was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. She continued to work until her death in 2010, her later pieces reflecting the double-edged beauty and precariousness of life.
After relocating to California in the late 70s, Wosk began to define her voice as a fine artist. Entirely self-taught, she embraced both the abstract and figurative, weaving in a treasure trove of decorative elements which she collected. A huge departure from her earlier commercial work in scale and style, her fine art incorporates characteristics of her illustrations, with an extraordinary focus on crisp line, edge and detail. While illustration may have a reputation for being the poor stepsister to fine art, the argument could be made that the fine draftsmanship and precision technique required for commercial work may inform the process of fine artists like Wosk, who take the leap.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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