When I began this piece, it was about loneliness and liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”)—about feeling alone and neither here nor there—hence my choice of a door, which is literally a threshold, and the brooding head of a raven.
Liminality, which is an anthropological term, describes “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”(Wikipedia) My subject, this raven-headed figure, exists purely within the threshold of this door, the structure of my painting. On one side, the raven stares back at us, clearly on the verge of stepping past the threshold. On the other side, the figure has shed the raven’s head but grown a wing and—we are too late—is already passing the threshold, the face obscured.
We are, in a sense, never in “possession” of the figure depicted in this painting. When viewing a nude figure, especially one whose face is exposed, thereby revealing their identity, the audience may feel they are in a position of power or entitlement. I was once told by a fellow artist that paintings which depict a figure staring back at the viewer do not sell as well as paintings in which the figure does not meet the viewer’s gaze. Again, I think this has to do with a voyeuristic power the viewer may enjoy. The raven-headed figure, however, evades us at every turn. On one side, the figure challenges us but remains anonymous. On the other side, we could have glimpsed the face, we might have been satisfied by gazing at the figure’s buttocks, but we are spurned. The figure flees, and we are left wondering, “What was that?”
It eventually became clear that this piece is also about gender. As I publicly documented the progress of this piece via social media, I referred to it as the “Raven Queen”, and I encountered a handful of people who confessed that they did not know why I was calling the subject of my painting a “queen” because, to their eyes, my subject was male. I felt a mixture of indignation and puzzlement at this reaction because on one side of the piece the subject is clearly depicted with a female breast, albeit small, and because the subject is me. It is true that I am uncommonly muscular, with small breasts, but I was born female and I continue to identify as a woman. Yet because my viewers could not see my face, nor my genitalia, I was perceived as male. I pointed out to a few individuals that the male pectoral structure does not at all look like that of the Raven Queen’s, and while she is well-defined, her muscular structure is not that of a man’s. But I see these things because I have a trained eye, accustomed to the intricate variations found in the nude figure. You, the viewer, despite your best intentions, are relying on preconceived notions. I am sure that I am guilty of this as well in other contexts. We would all do well to acknowledge the fact that we are all the same, that we are all different, and that we may think we understand what we are seeing, but our gaze is often distracted and superficial. Learning to draw and paint, after all, is just learning to truly see.