Friday, August 21, 2009

Tina Mion’s New Year's Party In Purgatory For Suicides

Dealing with the suicide of a friend or loved one has to be one of life’s greatest challenges. Like nervous breakdowns, it’s one of those phenomena we don’t fully understand. It frightens us a little, and the added burden of guilt associated with our failing to recognize any clues or properly interpret them weighs on us. Add to this the heaviness associated with eternal judgments that leave us confused about helpless… and you have a messy stew of unresolved grieving that has no clear cut resolution.

Because of the number of suicides or suicide attempts that my brother and I had known while younger, we discussed the possibility of a writing a book to increase awareness, comfort the hurting and perhaps discover answers for ourselves regarding unasked questions. There are, however, other ways in which people deal with the issue of suicide.

On the way to the Grand Canyon this past spring Susie and I stopped to see that corner in Winslow Arizona made famous by the Eagles in the song Takin’ Is Easy. Though the famous corner makes a memorable pit stop, the real treat for people passing through Winslow is La Posada Hotel, a few blocks to the east. La Posada is a National Landmark and officially the last great railroad hotel, built in 1929 for the Santa Fe Railroad. The life span of this historic structure was less than thirty years before it went dormant in 1957. Forty years later, a pair of new owners brought it back to life as a museum piece and hotel among other things.

I mention this only by way of introduction to the wonderful artist we discovered there.

I’ve never met Tina Mion, but for sure I am in awe of her work. Her portraits of first ladies are remarkable. Her life story itself is quite remarkable as well, as much as I can glean from the bio on her website.

So it was against the backdrop of my own interest in suicide (as a subject) that I had my breath taken away by my encounter with Tina Mion’s 7 x 18 foot painting A New Year’s Party In Purgatory For Suicides in which Liberace makes a guest appearance down from heaven just for the hell of it.

For me the painting made an impression because of the significant people who were present there. (The darkly amusing title also helped.) Artists, writers, musicians… all famous, all victims by their own hand. I was taken in, and wished we hadn’t been in such a hurry. Fortunately, an interactive version of the work is accessible online where we not only identify the names of the partygoers, but can also read about each of their suicide stories.

This here above is just the center portion of the painting. The actual painting is much wider with a far more comprehensive guest register. I recommend you visit her website to take in the full breadth of her remarkable work. An art school dropout, she set about to follow her own muse and not the conventions of her contemporaries. Very recently her work has achieved deserved recognition by the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. where she has a room of her own as one of five women defining 21st century portraiture.

I was personally impressed by the intellectual depth, accessible imagery, dark humor and sensitivity expressed in her work. Please take your time and get engaged. She’s both thought provoking and poignant. Thank you, Tina, for sharing your vision.

About the piece, she writes:

In the summer of 2003, I was feeling out of step with the art world, so I decided to throw a party to lift my spirits. The guest list and seating chart were rewritten all summer. By autumn, I began to paint, and the guests began arriving, all of them suicides except for Liberace. As the festivities got underway, I ran about nightly like a frazzled hostess until I finally threw up my hands and let people seat themselves. Some guests were no-shows and others arrived unexpectedly. The party took on a life of its own. No longer the master of ceremonies, I took a seat among the revelers — that’s me blowing a noisemaker.

Early in the 14th century, Dante Alighieri placed suicides in the second lowest level of his Inferno. Many major religions likewise condemned suicides to hell; my feeling is that this only adds to this pain of the families and shuts the topic behind closed doors. By taking an empathetic view of suicide, I chose to herald them into purgatory, and throw them a New Years party. Since a suicide defined the end of each guest’s time on earth, a party that marks the passage of time seemed somehow relevant. The guests bear the reminders of their final act: Sylvia Plath wearing potholders, Arshile Gorky with a noose necktie. This painting shows celebrities, friends, and people I knew. Liberace did not commit suicide but loved a party, especially one with so many interesting people, so he is visiting from heaven. One of his poodles sits on his lap, thus answering the question, “Do dogs have souls?” I’ve included all kinds of suicide: death by substance abuse, unbearable grief, a sudden deadly depression, a rational end to pain, a loss of hope, overwhelming loneliness. I do not condone suicide, but it has touched all our lives, mostly in silence. It is so prevalent in our society that it deserves to be depicted and discussed.

I hope this painting helps.

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