An interview with Colette Standish by Laura Frost, former Yale professor, writer and cultural critic.
LF: First, how did, "Anais through the Looking Glass and Other Stories" come together? What was its genesis? Did you begin with the subject matter or the treatment, or something else entirely?
CS: For years I have wanted to do a project based on Anais Nin, as I have always found her writing to be very visual and very similar to my own art i.e. Erotic, sensual and surreal. It was a matter of time and importance to get the balance right between Anais life and my art. I eventually found the equilibrium in using photographic images of Anais along with varies mediums such as ink, collage and paint.
LF: The pieces have a depth that you create through photographic images, mirrors, frosted glass, and light. Can you describe the composition process, and what these layers of material suggest?
CS: Using these materials enabled me to connect with my subject matter, Anais Nin, both emotionally and intellectually. The mirror connects the subject to the viewer thereby creating an intimate relationship instigated by the artist who is also involved. A Menage a Trois between subject, artist and viewer.
LF: Working with mirrors is tricky! Not only are they delicate, easy to smudge and scratch, but they also reflect the space around the piece itself in ways that can compete with the images in the work. And also, of course, they reflect the viewer in ways that you, the artist, can't predict. What challenges came up for you around this material, and were there any unexpected results?
CS: It was precisely for all the reasons you quoted above that I chose to work with these materials. In the beginning, I wanted to work with materials that reflected Anais Nin’s, personality - or what we are lead to believe - that she was delicate, vulnerable, sensitive but I found in treating the materials this way it became too superficial and impossible to manipulate and create any kind of depth. At some point I managed to scratch the surface of one of the mirrors and then the floodgates opened; I started to scratch more and incorporated the scratching into the piece along with broken glass and cracked mirrors. Thats when it started to fall in place. Plus it also gave the subject more depth: Anais Nin was more than this timid, vulnerable and delicate woman, she was woman of strength, conviction and vision. In the shattering of the materials, the subject, Anais Nin became shatterproof.
LF: How did you choose the photographs? What aspects of her biography are you highlighting, what narrative do you want to emphasize, and why?
CS: I wanted to choose images of Anais at the start of, not just her erotic journey, but also her journey as a young female artist. A journey most people can relate to regardless of background or generation i.e. younger relates older reflects. I focused on her life after her erotic awakening and what it meant to her in the aftermath of such an event. As an artist, in particular of surrealistic influence, it was important to me to find that connection in Anais’s work and mine where surrealism correlates . It was in this incubation period of Anais as an artist and her relationship with Artaud and her father that I found this correlation. I found her relationship with both men very surreal and full of explorations. It was a perfect starting point to begin my own exploration of Anais and her eroticism
LF: Can you talk about scale? The pieces in the show range from small lightboxes to very large slabs of mirror. My favorite is the shawl piece, with a Nin about triple life size in a garment of broken glass and wearing this mysterious, knowing Mona Lisa smile. It's quite imposing. How did you decide to work with images that size, and what effect do you think they create, as opposed to the smaller and more delicate lightboxes?
CS: All the mirrored images had to be on a scale that the viewer could interact with : I was looking back at you as you were looking back at me. A seductive invitation to get intimate with the subject and what is more intimate than looking into a mirror. It also had to be of a human scale for this to happen. The ‘Shawl’ at its inception was just a small image of Anais without the added collage of glass and mirror, but as I was building the work I found that it need more of an impact hence the worked in markings and scratches. Eventually it morphed into a more edgy Anais, one that was closer to how I imagined her to be in real life. The smaller art works, the lightboxs, touch on the controversial subject of her father in a more intimate and delicate way which is a lot more arresting in a smaller piece because it draws the viewer in more . The large pieces, mirrors, set the stage for the narcissist in the viewer. As a result the viewer is seduced into becoming a voyer in the relationship between Anais and her father.
LF: What is the significance of the mirror or the looking glass? In what ways is it specific to Nin, and in what ways is it a metaphor for something more general (e.g., female subjectivity or experience?).
CS: Its all about smashing through those boundaries that confines us as women, breaking through to different sides of our personalities and complexities and embracing them. Owning ones sexual erotic fantasies. What you see is not always what you get. Also, the ‘Shawl’ is a metaphor, an acknowledgement to the ‘Glass Ceiling’. Particularly relevant to Anais and her working relationship with Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell . All three worked closely together, but Henry and Lawrence achieved world wide success way before Anais did. Anais, acutely aware of the this Glass Ceiling (although the term had not been coined or given a name back then), never gave up on hitting that glass ceiling until she finally broke through on her terms as a female writer.
LF: I’m interested in how you reference the visual Nin versus her body of written work. To what extent do you draw on her writing--and which writing, specifically, is most resonant for this show?--and to what extent are you referencing as a personality, a persona, an icon? It occurs to me that there aren't many writers who would inspire or could sustain an art exhibition (e.g., Ian McEwan is a fantastic writer, but it's hard to imagine an art exhibition devoted to him).
CS: I think the visual Anais and her work are the same thing. They are both a work of art. Anais reminds me of a female Dali. In Surrealism, the visual and the written word very often crossed over into art. The Surrealist artist Rene Magritte famously wrote, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This pipe isn’t a pipe.”) across his painting, the Cubists, in particular Georges Braque, were also known for incorporating text into their artwork. Given that Anais was greatly influenced by Surrealism and other genres such as music, dance and film and was born into a family of musicians and artists, it is not really surprising that her fiction has a visual element to it. For this show however, I took elements from her diaries (the only exception was,‘ House of Incest’ ) in particular her relationship with the erotic and her father and interpreted her language into a visual one that was mine.
LF: One Nin scholar (Helen Tookey, Anaïs Nin, Fictionality and Femininity: Playing a Thousand Roles) argues that Nin became a symbolic icon because she was "a mobilizer of fantasies." She suggests that "Nin created for herself an identity (or non-identity) in the realm of legend and fantasy," and subsequently she "becomes a mirror reflecting various faces of femininity and feminine sexuality." To what extent are you playing on that quality in your art: Nin as an icon and a mobilizer of fantasy? And what aspect of the Nin legend do you think are most vital or significant?
CS: I do agree somewhat with what, Helen Tookey has to say about Anais creating for herself an identity (or non-identity) in the realm of legend and fantasy and the idea of the mirror and the varies elements of female sexuality and to a certain extent there is that element in the show. But to view Anais in just these limited terms is very one dimensional and it also negates her work, a work that spanned every decade of her life. Also every artist plays with fact and fiction, its called mythology and Anais was no exception. Anais is so often looked or analyzed on her contribution to both feminism and psychoanalysis, which is good, but there is still not a lot of research on her art. Out of all the research I have done on Anais, there is only one paper that touches on her art and that is by, Sandra Rehme “The Multimedia of Our Unconscious Life”: Anaïs Nin and the Synthesis of the Arts ‘ (University College London PhD History of Art ) Sandra paper touches on the interdicipline of Anais work from the Surrealists in Europe to her collaboration with artist, musicians and filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s such as Val Telberg, Louis and Bebe Barron, and Maya Deren to name a few. If in the 21st century we are to continue to keep Anais Nins legacy alive, we need to step out of the written page of this legacy and translate it into different art languages such as visual art, music and theatre. At the end of the day, I am a visual artist who was very influence by Anais Nin at an early age and not just by her eroticism, but also by her language . I decided that I wanted to paint the way she wrote, and this exhibition, ‘ Anais through the Looking Glass and Other Stories’ is my gift back to her and to show the world what this woman inspired me to do. To paint.
LF: Do you feel that Nin has a particular significance for today's audiences, or for our present cultural moment? Does her work have resonance in terms of contemporary (fourth wave) feminism, selfie culture, or #metoo, for example?
CS: I do believe that Anais Nin, if she was around, today would embrace fourth wave feminism as it was always something she believed in ie. a philosophy which emphasizes a belief in an integral complementarity of men and women, rather than the superiority of men over women or women over men. She believed both men and women should work together rather than apart. Viva la differences: Celebrate ones differences. Thats why this show is so important as it celebrates both Anais and the fourth wave feminism which has always been my philosophy too. So yes I do believe she is relevant very relevant. As for the selfie culture and #metoo, am not sure. I know she had her issues with men, but she did not hate men. I think she would be on the fence regarding #metoo. Selfies? Possibly as she did have narcissistic tendencies but she also had her privacy and secrets which in the end gave her the much needed success she craved. Secret and lies were part of her fame and attraction. Today everything you ever do is exposed through social media, there are no secrets, and I know, that would be her idea of hell!
LF: By representing Nin and her father, you invoke one of the most scandalous parts of Nin's legend. This was what tended to enrage critics when the unexpurgated diaries appeared. What sources did you draw on to depict that episode (her supposed affair with her father), and what significance do you assign it? I was intrigued by how you seem to cast it as merely one narrative, one story, among others.
CS: Well, Anais had a vast and complexed life and the rumored involvement with her father is indeed just one aspect of it, albeit a very important one. At the time of the alleged affair, Anais was not only beginning to open herself up to eroticism and sensuality, but she was also in the process of finding her own art language. With the help of Surrealism - in particular the transgressive element of surrealism - Henry Miller, Artaud , and may others, she experiment with many genres especially the new (At that time new) phenomenon of psychoanalysis - which had a lot to do with her involvement with her father - Anais was able to push and transgress boundaries that had not been explored before. As a result her life and art became intwined. As documented in her journals. I was always intrigued by this part of her life, not necessary her erotic awakening but what she did with it , how she use it in her art and on the many journeys it took her on through out her life. Her other stories.