Mary DeVincentis paintings conjure worlds that are simultaneously inner and cosmic, personal and universal, unexpected yet strangely familiar. Some of the core concepts of Buddhism, such as impermanence, emptiness, interdependence and the origins of suffering, aversion and ignorance, often surface in her work in allegorical forms. Her imagery, conveyed with a remarkable fluidity of color and form, takes the viewer deep into their own inner worlds. The artist shared with Art Spiel some of the experiences that led her to art, some of the ideas behind her work, and her overall process.
AS: Can you share a few experiences that led you to become an artist?
Mary DeVincentis: I grew up in an image-rich household full of art books and artwork. We also had free subscriptions to every conceivable magazine of the era, because my Dad worked in advertising, so there was a lot to look at and learn about. My mother was a painter. She often took me to the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both which were not far from where we lived in Delaware.
My mother had her easel set up in our kitchen. The smell of oil paint and turpentine became for me what the taste of a madeleine was for Proust, a portal back to the happiness of my early childhood. Her work was fairly academic and with a few notable exceptions, conventional in subject matter and style. So I remember well both the excitement and shock I felt when I first saw a reproduction of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son and realized that art could address the darker side of human nature and of life.
When I was eight years old, my mother got a job as an art teacher/art therapist at the Delaware State Psychiatric Hospital. I often accompanied her there and got to know some of the patients who frequented the art studio, and their artwork. Many had a freedom of expression in their paintings that was new to me and very compelling. Paradoxically, along with a certain kind of freedom, there was often a repetitive, almost compulsivity to their imagery, as if they were trying to work something out in paint that they hadn’t been able to in life.
One patient, Mr. L, had a small round indentation on each temple, evidence of the lobotomy he had received. He painted colorful landscapes with figures, which he would then glaze over in grays, a kind of a reverse grisaille process. His painting ritual seemed to me so clearly an enactment of his perception and experience of the world before and after his operation. I learned from him and from the other patients that art could be about an internal state or a deeply personal experience and also contain compelling formal characteristics. It was a natural progression and a deeply desired one to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become an artist.
AS: It says online that you are influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism. Does that apply to your art? Can you elaborate on that?
Mary DeVincentis: I studied and practiced a form of Tibetan Buddhism called Dzogchen for over ten years. Though I no longer formally practice in this tradition, its core principles and guidelines inform the way I conduct my life and create my work. There is a type of meditation in Tantric Buddhism wherein the meditator visualizes a deity, such as Tara for example, who exemplifies compassion for all beings, and then symbolically merges with that deity, as a way of taking in and taking on his or her enlightened qualities.
In a similar fashion, before I start a painting, I invoke, from a meditative space, artists from the past and present who influence and inform my work and envision them as participating in what I then paint. It’s a conscious ritual that is a form of acknowledgement that the work stems from a greater, more universal source than our own individual identity and this practice both keeps me humble and combats the loneliness of the painting process. Some of the core concepts of Buddhism, such as impermanence, emptiness, interdependence and the origins of suffering as arising from attachment, aversion and ignorance often show up in my work in an allegorical form.
AS: You are also a psychotherapist and that practice is likely to affect your way of thinking, interests, and approach to life and art. How do you see that practice in relationship to your art making?
Mary DeVincentis: There are several ways that my art practice and my psychotherapy practice inform and inspire one another. One major element of the psychotherapeutic process is that the therapist becomes a psychic container and sacred witness to what the client shares about their life, their beliefs, their emotions and all that has gone into forming their sense of self. The therapist’s task is to help clients see their experiences from new vantage points and perspectives. It’s a delicate and very collaborative process which can result in a greater sense of self acceptance, self-awareness and a more flexible and open-hearted outlook on life, ideally for both participants. My painting practice also begins with a narrative element, which becomes increasingly open-ended as I “collaborate” with the painting as it self-develops. Ideally, there is a second collaboration so to speak, when a viewer engages with the work and has an experience of it that is specific to them.
The core element that I believe is crucial to being authentic as a painter and as a psychotherapist is to be fully engaged from moment to moment. In both professions, one needs to have knowledge and a strongly developed set of skills (having the much touted 10,000 hours of experience helps greatly). But most of all, you need a fair degree of courage to enter into the aliveness of the actual moment with a client or with a painting. You are entering into an unknown and mysterious territory and you need to be able to tolerate being lost there for a while, and to resist grasping onto any of your previous solutions out of anxiety; instead allowing your full presence in mind, body and spirit to guide you.
AS: Is there a typical way you start a body of work?
Mary DeVincentis: I do often have a theme in mind when I begin to make a body of work. The theme provides me with a degree of structure within which I can find freedom. Too much freedom can be paralyzing and too much structure can feel constraining. I approached my most recent series of paintings, Dwellers on the Threshold, from a different place though. Instead of working from an imposed theme, I decided that if I made work as the idea for each painting presented itself to me, I could perhaps trust that a theme and some degree of consistency would naturally emerge.
Since I was making work for a solo show, this felt like a big risk to take, and I often woke up during that span of time with the sensation of a fist squeezing my heart, not really knowing whether the risk I was taking would lead somewhere productive.
AS: Let’s take for example Fear of Heaven, an acrylic painting you posted recently on Instagram – what’s the genesis, premise, process?
Mary DeVincentis: The generative idea behind my recent painting Fear of Heaven came from self-observation and observing in others that many of us fear change, even change that is clearly for the better. It may be partly because change can result in a significant shift in the way we define ourselves and/or how we experience the world, and thereby challenge our core beliefs.
This premise is explored in the marvelous novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. One aspect of the plot concerns the inhabitant spirits of a graveyard, during the era of the American Civil War. You could call these denizens ghosts, but they don’t realize themselves as such. They exist in an intermediate space between life and death (a bardo in Buddhist terminology) and believe that they are still alive, though “sick” and therefore sequestered from their families and from their prior lives. Now and then a band of angels descends to tantalize them in every conceivable way and convince them to come to heaven. Instead, they cower. They hide. They run in the opposite direction.
The imagery in my painting is based loosely on that dynamic. I am viewing heaven and the angel representing heaven in this painting as a state of being, more than as an actual place in space. This particular painting is also a good example of the fusion of eastern and western elements in my work. One way this manifests is in the different kinds of space I utilize. The tree and the angel are fairly three dimensional in typical Renaissance fashion, and are in contrast with other parts of the composition, such as the “frame” of flat blue paint that surrounds the narrative space of the painting, a device that is often found in Indian and other Eastern art.
The angel has a western version of wings and halo but the figure also possesses a scary ruthlessness that is found in the depiction of wrathful deities in ancient Tibetan and Indian art; a depiction which usually symbolizes the powerful energy needed to cut through delusion. The angel descends from the ambiguity of the blue border with both of his three dimensional feet outside the space of the narrative action.
The figure of the woman is somewhat insubstantial; reflecting the Buddhist concept of emptiness, now supported by the findings of quantum physics, that we and all objects are mostly made of space. And speaking of emptiness, the aspect of the painting that most pleases me is its negative space, specifically the harmoniously shaped spaces between the limbs of the tree, the limbs of the figures and those between the sky and the depicted objects.
Mind you, none of these choices I have described were pre-planned or preconceived. They developed as the painting took form. It is only afterward that I can see what my considerations were.
AS: Your color scheme is expressive, fearless, and very diverse. What is your approach to color?
Mary DeVincentis: I don’t really have an approach to color. The only pre-planning I do for a painting is a very small line sketch, so color choice is entirely intuitive. Before I returned to painting, I spent many years making monotypes. The process I used to make them worked best using muted, layered washes of color. When I began painting again, I was very excited to be able to work more directly and more boldly with color.
AS: Your imagery conjures for me an imaginary Jungian inner world lurking with dark shadows- charged with psychological urgency, verging on the psychedelic at times. What can you share about the origins of your imagery?
Mary DeVincentis: I never have to search for imagery. It appears everywhere, from a snatch of overheard conversation, a scene in a novel, a patch of yellow paint resembling a butterfly on the linoleum floor of the subway, a dream, a friend’s dream, a memory or a myth. Sometimes I start without any idea at all and eventually something will emerge into being.
I like to make paintings that are disturbing content-wise and visually appealing on a formal level. I like that tension. I am very interested in depicting the impulses and feelings that we keep hidden from ourselves and tend to project onto others, a concept which is informed by Jung’s idea of the shadow. There are so many ways we have to avoid getting to know ourselves and it takes a lot of our precious life energy to keep our more challenging emotions and memories from surfacing into conscious awareness.
AS: How do you see your development as a painter – from when you started to the present?
Mary DeVincentis: I started out as an observational and plein air painter, but at a certain point, based on the personal trajectory of my life, there were ideas and feeling states that I wanted to explore in my work, which did not fit in with an observational approach. And I didn’t yet have the painting chops to make this new kind of work successful as paintings. So instead, I changed my medium to black and white lithography as a way to begin developing a new way of working. Then an instructor at St. Martins, where I was studying advance printmaking, introduced me to monotyping and everything clicked into place for me. I found myself able to express my ideas and at the same time be responsive to the happy accidents and unanticipated outcomes inherent in the monotyping process. My work became alive again. It was only 10 years ago that I returned to painting with a renewed confidence and a new sense of freedom.
AS: What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?
Mary DeVincentis: It would be my hope that in encountering my work, viewers come into deeper contact with themselves and their experience of being human.
AS: What are you working on now?
Mary DeVincentis: I will soon start work on a painting inspired by one of Tereza’s dreams in the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.