A pathological striptease: Lynne Lomofsky at the AVA
by Lloyd Pollak
In 1993 Lynne Lomofsky was diagnosed as suffering from 'low-grade, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma', an incurable form of cancer with an average survival rate of nine years. A decade later, the artist's creative vitality remains undiminished. In 'Body of Evidence', Lomofsky explores her own diseased body with scathing matter of factness and dry-eyed gallows humour. She examines her own response to her malady, and probes the feelings of shame and alienation that assailed her when her person became a repository of secrets that could no longer be voiced nor shared.
The artist elects bleak truth rather than consolatory myth. She considers the suffering cancer inflicts devoid of moral significance and ennobling meaning. Because the disease curtails human autonomy with such terrifying finality, it has enshrined itself as The Great Unmentionable, and society has improvised a blockade of protocols to silence the cancer victim and deflect the threat. "If you survive cancer you are heroic," says Lomofsky, "and if you don't, you are tragic." The essence of such tragic or heroic personae is uncomplaining stoicism. Antigone and Electra do not moan, weep, whinge or draw attention to their condition. They retreat into sublime self-containment.
What society wills from the cancer-sufferer is this noble Greek hush. 'Body of Evidence' breaks the enforced silence and rudely violates the taboos that conceal the indecencies of mortal illness. It addresses the stigma of the terminally ill, and analyses their feelings of abandonment, isolation and worthlessness.
Lomofsky's video Cross-Sections 11 provides a jarring and dissonant curtain raiser to this cruelly gruelling exhibition. By animating static x-ray images of her organs, the artist launches us on a spellbinding journey through her own body, and celebrates disease with raucous irony. Liver, spleen, kidney, lungs and heart shimmy to the strains of 'Ave Maria', a paean of praise offered to the Virgin by one who has nothing whatsoever to thank her for. The video reveals the queasy splendours of the body's interior, and whizzes us through the luxuriant jungle of viscera where organs swell like ripening fruit, arteries undulate and coil, and oozing glands shimmer and drip.
Two further videos documenting Lomofsky's hair loss during chemotherapy, and recording her diagnostic history, brief us on her case history. An archive of medical illustrations, models, diagrams, doctor's reports, x-rays and scans, contextualise her illness and her imagery. In her paintings the artist moves from the particular to the universal. Her intellect and imagination ensure that these records of her own sufferings transcend their cause, and become true of all women contending with infirmity, trauma and blight.
There are 13 canvases of near identical format and composition. In each, a headless, legless, one-armed torso - reminiscent of a smashed classical statue - materialises from slurry of paint to bare a huge vertical scar. The scar, executed in a crude lavatorial scrawl, doubles as a graffiti-style clitoral slit. Its spidery fringe of stitches horrifyingly embodies the cancer-sufferer's fear of erotic disqualification and redundancy.
This maimed torso was inspired by medical diagrams and dressmaker's dummies, and Lomofsky's many variations upon it, evoke the feelings of monotony and repetition she experiences waking up day after day to find herself trapped in the same diseased body. Cancer engenders physical and psychological fragmentation, and Lomofsky's principal metaphor for such self-dispersion is the dissolution of the trunk into a patchwork quilt of implants.
The broken body is a hodgepodge of scraps of cutout paper precariously secured to each other by white round-headed pins evocative of lymph nodes or, thread applied like surgical stitching, or scabby clots of impasto. Rifts and seams, redolent of gashes and scars, suggest imminent disintegration. Paint becomes distempered skin. It puckers, creases, mottles, and erupts into pustules, or trails down the canvas like a discharge weeping from a sore.
The body performs a pathological striptease. Lomofsky often delineates the diseased organs, and then coats them in a thick stratum of transparent wax. The skin thus becomes like cellophane, and invites us to inspect the innards beneath. The contrasts between opaque paint and translucent wax, between flatness and staggered layers, fracture the paintings' surfaces. Non-art materials like Xerox, acetate, bandaging, tape, pins and hair are sandwiched one on top of the other like thin slices of tissue, to produce further fission. The pharmaceutical materials lend the torso a bitty, rag-doll materiality, and imply it is an homunculus confected from clinical specimens.
Lomofsky accentuates this rag-tag and bobtail appearance by dividing the trunk up into a grid of squares in allusion to the procedures adopted preparatory to biopsy scans. Segmentation and discontinuity become indicative of mental schism. As Emma Bedford points out, Lomofsky hereby creates a new kind of portraiture. She ignores the outer appearance of the anatomy in favour of its inner appearance. At the same time, through correlative and analogue, she forces the contents of the body to reveal the contents of the mind.
That mind broods on how the impairments of surgery, the loss of hair and fertility, have eroded its sense of feminine competence and viability, and stripped it of the nurturing dignity of womanly roles. Although the subject suggests a maudlin exchange of gynaecological confidences at a kaffeeklatsch, Lomofsky's tone of hectic funereal revelry rules out self-pity.
Microscopic photographs of diseased cells inspire the gorgeous patterns of cascading chrysanthemums, snowdrops and starbursts with which she festoons her paintings. Such decorative flourishes create a mood of festive lyricism, and generate explosive tension between theme and execution, which is dissipated in her deliberately ugly, aggressive creations. Mood swings are implicit in the hang. Lush painterly sensuality alternates with in-your-face crudity and the paintings seesaw between hope and despair.
The limbless torso is visually associated with traditional female pursuits such as baking, icing cakes and arranging flowers while needlework, knitting and dress-making embody Lomofsky's urge to reintegrate herself. The truncated torso appears - to grotesque yet heartbreaking effect - clad in tizzy couture bedizened with pom-poms fashioned from hair shed during chemotherapy.
In another painting Lomofsky irreverently presents her ailing body as a nauseatingly pink, gooey iced cake. Such sleight-of-hand typifies the ghoulish lebenslust that makes 'Body of Evidence' so emotionally bracing. The excoriating black humour becomes an act of defiance, a means of spitting the exterminating angel in the eye.
The sounds of 'Ave Maria' welling into the space, activate memories of gruesome catholic martyrdom: Santa Lucia tendering her eyes on a plate, Santa Agatha tendering her breasts on a plate. Lomofsky insists that our Western iconography of suffering neglects illness, and concentrates on the pain wrought by divine and human wrath. Her last image corrects this imbalance, and super-imposes the artist's own butchered trunk upon that of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, thus equating the sorrows of the Mater Dolorosa with the agony of the cancer sufferer.
The implicit hints of assumption form yet another irony, for the body of evidence indicates that no heavenly saviour whisked Lomofsky to paradise. Like Frida Kahlo, Lomofsky subverts catholic imagery by using it to formulate a withering atheistic statement about the absence of divine intervention. Lomofsky's work is as tough and valiant as Kahlo's, and her disquieting blend of death rattle and belly laugh will reverberate in our consciousness long after the exhibition closes.
Lynne Lomofsky exhibited at the AVA from 9 - 28 June 9.
The exhibition is now at the NSA Gallery from 8 - 27 July.
Lloyd Pollak is an independent critic of long-standing based in Cape Town.