Artist merges brain scans and paintings for He-Charmers exhibit at The Compound Gallery
Katherine Sherwood’s new collection He-Charmers opened last week at the Compound Gallery in Oakland. Her newest work features mixed media paintings that incorporate brain imagery from her personal medical history.
A pair of eyes, the color and shape of almonds, stares out from under the brim of Stevie’s strange hat. The hat looks like it is made out of a material that is almost like a photograph, but not quite. Snaking through it are tunnels of different sizes, winding and curling their way haphazardly from top to bottom. But this is not a hat, it’s is a cerebral angiogram—a picture of the cardiovascular structure inside a brain. The tunnels are the tiny enclosed highways that carry blood to different regions of the brain. And this angiogram is not of just any brain, but that of the artist’s whose work is watching you from the white walls of this Oakland gallery.
Katherine Sherwood, whose show He-Charmers opened last week at The Compound Gallery, located in the Golden Gate arts district in North Oakland, has included a number of her own angiograms in the mixed media pieces that comprise her collection. Fourteen years ago, Sherwood, a professor of art and disabilities studies at UC Berkeley, had a massive cerebral hemorrhage in the left side of her brain—a stroke—that almost took her life and left her mostly paralyzed on the right side of her body. She had to learn how to walk, talk, think and paint all over again.
She had been a right-handed painter before the stroke, but it cost her the use of her right arm and hand. In adapting to her disability she found that her lack of fine motor skills actually had a freeing effect on her work, her process becoming more intuitive and less calculated. After having been propelled toward the same images and ideas for years, it was almost as if the stroke had somehow freed her to finally create the painting that had always been in her head. “It took a while for my life to catch up to my art,” she said, half-chuckling at the irony.
He-Charmers, her most recent work, is the second in her series Healers from the Yelling Clinic. The first collection in the series debuted a year ago at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, and depicted distinctly female healers. Each piece represented the female form through vividly painted torsos on canvases attached to hanging textile skirts.
In her new collection Sherwood decided to paint male healers. According to Sherwood, theHealers from the Yelling Clinic series is an open enough work that that could mean healers of many types—spiritual healing, emotional healing or the healing by a nurse or doctor. “I sort of see them as clinicians of the Yelling Clinic,” she said of the male healers in this work and of the female healers from her first collection of the series. “The men turned out in the end to be more abstract, different palettes, less regal, different tactile sensation offered by their fabric.”
She used a mix of her own brain scans and images from neuro-anatomy texts dating back to the 16th Century, along with bold and deftly shaped swirls of paint to construct the faces, jewelry, and hats of her healers. Some of the pieces more directly illustrate the male figure, like Green Jeans,which portrays a man with an MRI image of a brain instead of a head. Others stray into more abstract representations, like Landscape which depicts an enmeshed tangle of individual neurons. But all of them share a commonality of form and pattern that elicit either directly or indirectly the circuitry of the human mind.
Sherwood chose to include both forms of brain imagery—her own, and those from neuro-anatomy texts—because of her interest in how the brain was represented throughout medical history. Sherwood said the MRI is a form of imaging that is radically different from the technology that came before it, and the juxtaposition of these images is testimony to that. “I wanted to place my brain between it [the earlier medical text representations of the brain] and the fMRI technology of the 21st Century.”
Sherwood said she also wanted to comment on how the brain images of the past were made by artists, not anatomists. “In today’s medical imaging the artist is left out,” Sherwood said. “What happens when the artist comes at the end of the process not the beginning?”
Including her own medical documents was also important to Sherwood on a more personal level. “They were symbols for me that I would live,” she said.
Lena Reynoso, who co-directs the Compound Gallery with her husband Matt, said that this is one of the things that drew them to Sherwood’s new work. “For us, Katherine is really a true artist,” Reynoso said. “Her process was transformed by her stroke and her art is really reflective of that—there’s a feeling and a meaning behind each piece.”
The Yelling Clinic that Sherwood’s Healersseries refers to is the name of an arts and disabilities collective, comprised of six professional working artists—five of whom live in the Bay Area—that Sherwood co-founded in the spring of 2008. Its members seek to use art as a way to connect and engage artists with either cognitive or physical handicaps. They are particularly interested in disabilities caused by war and military-related pollution, such as radioactive contamination in Japan after the drop of the atomic bomb or chemical weaponry, like the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. “War is the biggest creator of disabled people,” Sherwood said. “We’re really interested in its effects on global disability populations.”
The Yelling Clinic is currently organizing activities for survivors of war in the Bay Area. In September the group sponsored a Berkeley stop on the Combat Paper Project, which is a nationwide campaign of workshops for US veterans to transform their military uniforms into pieces of art by cutting them up and turning them into paper, which serve as the base for their works of art.
This coming December, the six members of the Yelling Clinic have plans to travel to Vietnam to meet with communities of disabled artists and artisans, many of whom are survivors of Agent Orange. Agent Orange, used by the US military as a defoliating agent during the Vietnam War, is a powerfully toxic herbicide that is still in the soil and the food chain in parts of Vietnam, and still causing birth defects more than 30 years after the war’s end.
Before Sherwood leaves for Vietnam with the other Yelling Clinic artists she will be giving an artist’s talk, on December 4th at The Compound Gallery where she will discuss her work and her process.
“When you almost die that changes everything,” Sherwood said. “Death is nearer, not forced away. It naturally changes your art practice.”