Throughout the history of art, one of the most pervasive roles of the visual image has been social commentary. The visual arts posses a unique power to act as a social conscience, to illuminate problems within our social structure, to speak of responsibility and effect real change.
Painted in stark white, black and red, Stephanie Wilde’s images have a severity that clearly emphasizes her anger and frustration. For Wilde, black and white represent the extremes of human behavior, while red represents power, anger and danger. Rather than purely aggressive, these paintings possess a remarkable spiritual quality. The small, intimate size combined with a rich, jewel-like surface quality and the frequent use of intricate Celtic designs endows the paintings with attributes characteristic of early illuminated manuscripts. Just like those religious illustrations, Wilde’s images serve to educate and elevate the general public.
Wilde’s triptych “The Shorn Heads” takes a searing look into the world of racial intolerance and hatred. Within the three 6-by-6-inch panels, “The Shorn Heads” are clear references to such hate-driven groups as the neo-Nazis and skinheads. Tightly packed, claustrophobic assemblages of figures depict the group mentality of these organizations. Each figure is connected and intertwined with the group. The white of their bald heads stands in stark contrast to the black background. Each figure’s mouth is fully open, as if caught in the act of screaming the rhetoric of racial hatred. When viewed through the magnifying glass, the figure’s clothes reveal rich, intricate patterns of Nazi swastikas painted in the traditional red and black. Surrounding the central image, an elaborate, complex tiled pattern frames each panel and contains Nazi emblems and the Star of David in alternating squares.
The center image of “The Shorn Heads” clearly depicts the continuing legacy of white supremacist groups. Within the image, a descending line of figures raise their arms in an aggressive Nazi salute. The figures are dressed in Nazi arm bands and clothes adorned with swastikas. Distinctly visible within the group are men, women and young children who follow blindly the examples set forth by the group. The young, bare-chested boy is perhaps still in diapers, yet is being carefully prepared to follow in the ways of racial hatred. Wilde directly confronts the tradition of indoctrinating children with white supremacy groups’ inherent violence. Here, hatred is treated as a family affair.
One of the most pressing issues in our society is the high rate of violence among today’s youth. Wilde’s “Where Are Their Parents?” directly confronts the issue in three separate panels, each with the common thread of a hand gun. In contrast to “The Shorn Heads,” the violence depicted in “Where Are Their Parents” is not race specific. White and black, young male figures occupy the 2-by-2-inch central panel. Offset in the bottom left and top right corners, figures point or wave hand guns. The black figure in the foreground has a series of red dots down the side of his face, perhaps symbolic of bloodshed. Beyond the obvious symbol of the gun, conflict is implied through contrast of stark black and white, and the soft, organic forms of the figures against the bold geometric patterns in the background.
Rather than anger, there is an overriding feeling of sadness. The downward curve of each head and neck and the despondent facial expressions imbue the sense that these individuals are trapped in this fate. The compact formation of figures ties the individuals to the group and to the cycle of violence. This feeling is heightened by the strong geometric bars that form a border around the figures, locking them within the work. This feeling of inescapable violence is perpetuated by the media—media that often romanticize violence and create an environment where the hand gun becomes the ultimate symbol of power. Wilde’s use of the title “Where Are Their Parents” denotes a parental responsibility to raise children in a manner that rejects those images and creates a respect for life.
Possessed by the Furies presents Stephanie Wilde’s passionate position on these issues. Just as importantly however, is the fact that this exhibit challenges attitudes, beliefs and commitment to community. Therein lies the power of great art—to speak eloquently of internal passions while promoting external actions. Through her individualistic technique, imagery and intensity, Wilde takes us on a personal journey through issues that affect everyone’s lives.
Possessed by the Furies will be on display at the Salt Lake Art Center through June 27.