Book of Life

And God said, "I will create a giant tree so magificent, it demonstrates the postmodern idea of perspective!" A print from Esch's "The Three Questions"
Mary Esch

Have you ever wondered where a postmodern artist gets her ideas? Is there a mail-order club, perhaps? It's easy to imagine: Quality Ideas for Postmodern Art Projects. With your first order, you receive 80 percent off Tips for Turning Your Favorite Childhood TV Weaknesses into Art. Plus, Five Ways to Depict Your Navel for only $4.99. And if you apply now, we'll throw in 99 How My Parents Fucked Up My Life rants absolutely free!

Well, actually, any artist can tell you that the process tends to be a bit more mundane, less commercialized, and sometimes more surprising than that. Consider local artist Mary Esch: For the past decade-plus, her work has originated from quiet everyday sources--most commonly, books. Her latest exhibit, a series of prints entitled "The Three Questions," was inspired by Leo Tolstoy. But literature has been informing her work since the early 1990s, when she started making a name for herself in town by painting cartoon-like riffs on the feminist psychosexual ramifications of "Little Red Riding Hood." Esch tweaked the original story: The main character became Big Red Riding Hood (the biggest girl in her village), and the wolf became a she-wolf who falls for Big Red and ends up being eaten by the girl instead of vice versa. In revamping the classic fairy tale, Esch took some cues from British author Angela Carter, whose stories fuse myth and folklore with a modern feminist take on anxious desire.

"Anything goes in image-making," Esch says during an interview at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking. "Reading creates images in my head. It's a subject or content I can think about just like a still life."

Throughout the 1990s and around the turn of the millennium, Esch further twisted the fairy tale, adding a second female character to join Big Red, and eventually transforming both questing women into lumpy, cartoony, Brueghel-like pirates in raggedy clothes, wandering through an empty seascape.

"As an artist, I was just rummaging thru old art history," she later explains in an e-mail, "pilfering images, trying to reconstruct some art that I could call my own. Hating it. Feeling like an imposter. I decided to look at this more closely and make art out of it. Pirates became a metaphor for the artist as a pilfering imposter--reckless, desperate, violent, addicted, adventuresome, poor, rich, wasteful, lusty."

Of course, all artists ransack the past to some extent: Esch herself owes a bit of a nod to the local Frank Gaard school of id-heavy cartoony colorism. (She also has contributed to Gaard's notorious art zine Artpolice, and was a longtime partner of Gaard collaborator Stuart Mead.) But Esch is an artist on a spiritual quest, and she changes as her quest changes: Her methods of working have varied with each successive story or project. At the same time, her interest in narrative, a sophisticated sense of design, and the precious quality of her colors bring a more universal appeal to her work.

Esch looks like a character drawn up by cartoonist-novelist Lynda Barry. At 37, she has a very youthful face. Esch's latest series, which will be mounted as a Franklin Art Works exhibition, comprises 12 images. Nine of them are simple black-and-white soft-ground line etchings of various figures moving through an abstract landscape. The other three will have eight or nine silk-screened blocks of color on top of the simple line etching.

The imagery for "The Three Questions" is a response to Leo Tolstoy's parable-like tale of the same name, and the titular issues are very similar to those that form the basis of many spiritual practices. In Tolstoy's story, a king realizes that if he knew the right time to begin each of his actions, the right people to associate with, and the most important thing to do at any time, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

"I've been meditating a lot," Esch explains of the project. "And I'm interested in dealing with religious subject matter."

Even the physical properties of the work call to mind religious illustrations. As opposed to her more zaftig use of color in her painted works, Esch's latest images are bone-dry--her line-drawn figures are simple, complementing the abstract settings and flat colors. Upon seeing them, I am struck by a painful childhood memory of force-read illustrated Bible stories--though certainly the quality and craft in the drawing, as well as Esch's expressive questioning, make her images far more complex than those that I recall. Esch's inspiration often follows courses that are difficult to comprehend or to follow--from fairy tales to pirate stories to religious parable. And so "The Three Questions" leaves us with a question of our own: Where will she take us next?

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