The Multi-Paneled Figurative Work
When I hear the words diptychs or triptychs, I immediately think of narrative religious paintings. These multi-paneled works were commissioned by the church and the subjects were almost always Biblical in nature; the images meant to aid in the meditation on the life of Jesus.
Some of the earliest examples of these works were small and portable. Two or three panels, connected by hinges, could be closed shut like a book and transported during monastic travel. This type of work soon evolved into massive altar pieces made for permanent display at churches and cathedrals. These mural-sized paintings were also connected with equally massive hinges that allowed the works to be closed and to free-stand within places of worship in such a way that they created alcoves for focused devotion. Often times the backs of the outer panels were also painted, so that the triptych transformed into a different image, a diptych, when the the outer panels were closed together. The earliest written account of a triptych appeared in a travel diary describing the Garden of Earthly Delights (1503) by Hieronymus Bosch about a decade after it was painted. Then, about a hundred years later, Peter Paul Rubens painted the masterful figurative triptychs: The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross, both housed at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium.
In modern times, a very different era of patronage, multipanel work is no longer dependent on being attached by hinges. Our brightly painted blank walls bring flexibility to how the works are hung in relation to one another. Some contemporary artists have taken these new possibilities to extremes, for example Barry McGee’s patchwork of individually framed caricatures that bulge out of the wall towards the viewer. The contemporary revisiting of the art form has also given greater freedom in how artists pair imagery. For example, Vincent Desiderio’s triptychs are often made with seemingly unrelated panels that, when juxtaposed together, create new meanings. Rather than offering viewers a puzzle, other artists use multipanel pieces to clearly illustrate contrasting viewpoints. Take for example the woodblock collaboration between Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet titled American Procession illustrating the history of American Bipartisanship.
Despite a few great contemporary examples and the historical importance of multi-paneled work, this style of image making has become less common in our contemporary art world, even in the midst of our figurative renaissance. Curatorial power couple Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Schmidt are helping to bring diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs into vogue with their recently curated exhibition, Secondary Meanings which opens May 17th at the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. Curated from 110 entries from mostly the PoetsArtists community, the exhibition is the unveiling of 36 figurative diptychs and triptychs that have not previously been exhibited or published before, including on social media platforms.
Many of the artists accepted into the exhibition do not usually make multi-paneled works in their practice. For artists new to the approach, responding to this call was an opportunity to experiment with how the inclusion of additional image panels can create an element of, as the curators suggested: juxtaposition, contrast, comparison, expansion, connection, or separation.
This interplay between images creates secondary meanings read by the viewer as potentially subtle, obvious, complementary, or conflicting. In general, any works that do not specifically illustrate a known narrative contain another dichotomy of meaning: the artist’s intention versus the viewer’s experience. Sometimes the associations projected onto the work are similar, while other times they end up vastly different.
The exhibition includes two-dimensional handcrafted mediums - such as painting, watercolor, and drawing, as well as three dimensional sculptural work (of which only one sculpture, a diptych wall hanging by Laura Spector, was accepted). Although the exhibition call also stated that painting over photos is forbidden, there are a few photographic diptychs, including black and white photo collages by Diego Vela and a pair of technicolored prints by Nancy Bechtol.
The exhibition is made up of artists from the United States, Canada, Cuba, Australia and parts of Europe: Belarus, Ireland, and the UK. Well known for their generous support of women artists through their collection and the Bennett Prize, the exhibition call attracted many more entries by women than men. Therefore, it is not surprising that exhibition is made up of 70% women artists (25 women and 11 men).
Although the call was open to multi-paneled works, there were only six triptychs, the rest of the 30 accepted works were diptychs. As required, all of the pieces were figurative, but the vast majority depict female figures: 27 works depict only women, while 31 pieces include a female figure. Only the works by Diego Vela, David Molesky, and Scott O’Neil exclusively contain male figures, while men and women interact in paintings by Alexandra Manukyan and Julie Bell. Maryam Gohar also has men and women, but they are segregated into their own panels. Three of the accepted diptychs feature very young children, a young boy eating pie with black birds flying in the distance by Graham Bruce Richards, a trio of young children by Ryan Myers, and Nancy Bechtol’s double photo portrait of a boy. Since the figures are covered head to ankle with only the feet visible in Zach Brown’s triptych, it's difficult to assess much about the figure other than that it is likely the same image printed to each panel onto which the gauze-like fabric is adhered.
Definitely the most common motif made by artists in the exhibition is to repeat one female figure over multiples panels; half of the diptychs and half of the triptychs take on this approach. The compositions that only contain one figure in total or have a variety of different figures use additional panels to expand the compositional space. Those that repeat a figure offer an additional view, perspective, or window into another moment of time. In this sense these works take on a suggested narrative with time being the assumed medium that accounts for the differences between panels.
A Deeper Look
In Victor Wang’s Breeze from the Orient, a contemporary Caucasian woman looks towards the viewer over her left shoulder as her body faces a strong gust of wind that carries decapitated sunflowers. On the right panel, emerging from a matrix of dripping transparent paint, we can see six horses, three riders, and a standing figure. One of the horseman appears to be Genghis Khan. Possibly the main character’s associative memory is triggered by the strong wind and that memory is illustrated in the space behind her.
In Sarah Stieber’s The Sky is Always Blue, we can see several elements typically found in her work. As suggested by the title, Sarah’s use of blue is strong and pervasive. The beach in the right panel likely represents her native San Diego and the brick wall is reminiscent of some of her recent mural projects. She has also had ongoing collaborations with local fashion designers, who have created clothing appearing in her other paintings. Likely self-portraits, the figure on the left is in an urban environment but wears patterns reflective of the natural elements which she projects out of her hands, in Marvel comics-style, onto the opposite panel. The figure on the right, clothed in a brick plaid, carries a garbage bag and looks back at the urban figure over her shoulder. The diptych suggests that the figure on the right has left the urban environment, no longer satisfied by mascot-like depictions of nature, and has chosen a life closer to nature, cleaning up the mess that urban culture has made of her.
Briana Lee’s The Calling depicts the same figure (possibly a self-portrait), which is reinforced by the repetition of the jade necklace, coral earrings, and left hand wedding band. The difference in clothing, especially the pattern of the shawls, distinguishes these figures from occupying the same time even though they appear to share the same background and horizon. The figure of the left panel looks up to the bird flying in the right panel, while the right figure looks down to the bird in the nest of the left panel. The gesture and attitude towards the birds is suggestive of reflections of future and past times. The title seems to relate to the calling of motherhood. The left figure holds the nested bird; her activities are anticipating the days it is strong enough to soar high on its own. While the figure on the right, the empty nester, looks back nostalgically to the time of intimate care.
June Stratton’s Don’t Shoot depicts three portraits of the same figure on two panels. The more solidly painted figure on the left panel looks towards the right panel and puts her right hand up to her face, as if to block the gaze of the viewer. Peering from behind her floats a blue toned apparition who might represent her own consciousness of the viewer’s gaze. The figure brings to mind Barbara Kruger’s seminal work Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), 1981 - a critical commentary on the objectification of the male gaze. In the right panel, the subject comes forward to confront this gaze, while gesturing an additional block with her left hand.
The title of Laura Spector’s The Huntress Diana and Two Nymphs after Paris Bordone dispels any question of where the imagery is from. However, it is not immediately obvious when viewing the piece from a photograph that the two sculptural forms on which the images are painted are not just abstract blobs. While looking at the head of the white dog on the left ‘panel,’ I noticed little green fingers under the dog’s chin. Using representational sculpture as a substrate to paint imagery that is not necessarily related reminds me of the public art fad in which cities invite local artists to paint onto sculpture casts, usually of some animal. This sculptural form seems as if Laura posed the Venus of Willendorf to mime the actions in the imagery with her hands and breasts. The offering of the deer head on the left corresponds to the sculptural hand offering her breast, whereas the repulsion of the figure on the right is mirrored empathically by the arm pulling in the breast towards safety.
The response by artists to this call for new work has been inspirational. Many were able to take their works to another level with the introduction of additional panels. These compositions expand our views and add the dimension of time to the seemingly static imagery of painting. Diptychs and triptychs offer a powerful means to express narratives and concepts which might otherwise prove awkwardly challenging to pull off in single panel compositions. With the great success of this exhibition, we should expect to see more examples of multi-paneled works in the coming years from the PoetsArtists community and beyond.