The Veil of Longing
The Veil of Longing
When you enter the art of Penny McElroy, you agree to walk, eyes shuttered, as if accepting a temporary blindfold, through the
Door of Mystery.
Then, when you have dared to cross the threshold, you drop the blindfold and gaze about the new world with wonder: what strange and wonderful objects might you discover? Everything you see is exquisite, sumptuous, lush with detail and texture and elegant workmanship… but look again–is the object of your gaze an image of inexplicable beauty, so stunning that the heart pauses as if in awe, or do you gaze instead upon a moment of terror in a world of irrational violence? Or, rather, have you been allowed a glimpse of what might transcend them both, beauty and terror, transforming the realm of the mysterious and allowing you to discover what lies before your eyes in the realm of the ordinary? That bridge of transformation will take you back into the whirling spirals of your innermost self.
So many of the recurring images in McElroy’s art speak to this longing of returning—longing, for instance, for the golden childhood that lies forever beyond your reach. Who is that man (your father?) mowing the lawn in that tangle of limited surrender? What is that man (your husband?) in the answer inside your question pondering? The wholesome, simple images juxtaposed with the exotic splendor of their backgrounds—unidentifiable machinery over an embroidered lawn, tickets in ritualized rows as if containing the secrets of the universe–acquire the edge of a David Lynch film, only his pumped up acid colors have been muted, a cheap factory rug magically changed into a handmade Persian carpet. Ah, you say, this cannot be sinister—it is too beautiful! But you have been deceived. Did a purer time ever exist? The layers of McElroy’s details reveal themselves in slow increments before your eyes: what appears to be exotic religious iconography in a turning night of stars, for instance, is simply a peacock-spread of sewing pins (Why are they piercing the rose? Why the elbows? Why the gloves?). You look and look again: on closer inspection, what was nameless and exotic is simply a packet of thread or a painted egg, a panoply of rhinestone buttons sailing up and forming the night sky.
Now you look round and discover that the safe, comforting details of a nearly familiar suburban landscape have rearranged themselves into a stairway to the divine.
And, yet, what of the terror you see in the familiar? You are not allowed to escape into the tranquility of the merely beautiful, the purely ordinary. Something more frightening lies coiled around the surface, sometimes not entirely visible and yet always omnipresent. Is there a magic carpet to ride upon that will take you out of the realm of danger? There are doorways and darkened rooms, corridors endlessly receding, and you hear the line of the poet Rumi, with whom McElroy conspires tirelessly in her work: Where, where can I be safe?
In eternity will inherit it the open palm spreads before you and offers a butterfly: here it is! Make what you will of what I offer you!
Or perhaps the mysterious apothecary shop in the most living moment contains something that will be able to change the leaden world into gold? Small jars lie on shelves full of sand or strange medicines, potions, and elixirs. The ritual boxes are reminiscent of the voodoo work of Betye Saar, the precision of a Joseph Cornell box. You wonder: is this scientific evidence you can trust? And what do you make of the receding, as if into a doomed perspective, of the background world in still one light? Is this an infinity point, or the end of the world? Shadow images fade away, as if you are trapped in an abandoned subway in earth and ashes. You are tantalized with answers only suggested, with questions vaguely posed.
The world pulls away from you like an ebb tide, and the body is a trickster as well, sensual and duplicitous. In whispering with god we see the interior and the exterior, the delectable round image of the flesh paired with the diagrammatic structure of the nervous system: one protects, one offers, and they hover before an ambiguous backdrop, suggesting both musical notation and medical machinery. Jewels cover the genitals—but no: when you look closer, you see that what appear to be gemstones are actually electrical fuses…then, perhaps you should merely measure the skeleton as the mysterious hand proposes in dancing to inward music? The self is divided into cogs within a wheel and falls endlessly away: everything mirrors everything.
If the world were not so beautiful, you might despair. Hands are offered, birds sail away, and a child’s fresh face turns hopefully again for the watching parent or the passageway out of this world.
And then you understand.
The mysterious door you have entered you shall enter and enter and enter again, gazing each time upon the object of fear or the image of luminous grace or the revelation into the self, balanced oddly and finally on the palm of the extended hand. You must learn to savor, as Rumi does, the constant incongruity. In a world filled with heartbreaking beauty and heartbreaking terror, Where, where can I be safe?
Perhaps only in the memory.
Look again: what is extraordinary masquerades as the ordinary, and the divine resides in the simplest of domestic details, the arch of sewing pins, the exotic world of the temporal, the everyday.
Treasure that discovery and hold it close to your heart. Long for the transformation even as you embrace the contradiction. McElroy’s exquisite, provocative images extend from the simplest surface detail to the most profound depths; there will be no safety for you until surrender to the lack of safety.
Lift the veil of longing, and then lift it again. And then again. Nothing resides beneath, only the lifting.
This essay (© Patricia Geary) first appeared in 2007 in the catalogue recovered mercies.
Patricia Geary teaches at the University of Redlands and is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, Living in Ether and Strange Toys, and the novella, The Other Canyon. She also practices yoga in Redlands, California, where she lives with her husband, Jack, and son, Denis. Strange Toys is the winner of the 1987 Philip K. Dick Award.