"Horror vacui," or a fear of emptiness, is a term that seems to have been ready-made for the colorful and highly animated gouache and sumi ink drawings in the show "Linda Carmella Sibio: The Insanity Principle" at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea.
In Sibio's drawings, sharp variations in scale move the eye from central figures, real and imaged, to thousands of tiny demons filling the interstices of the picture. This occurs in both her small (13 x 20 in.) and huge (4 x 8 ft.) drawings.
The central figure in Trapped, an eight by four foot work also called Joy in Madness, is in the throes of metamorphosis. According to the artist, the figure is a fearful person with a less than perfect body and soul. This person is blessed and holy, wrapped in a mantle of gold like some Catholic saint.
The act of turning into someone more accepting and hopeful is symbolized by the spinning wheels that bracket the body. Small, friendly beings, ready to help recycle the darkness and paranoia that haunt the figure, inhabit the spokes of the wheels. In the triangular fringe around the drapery and in the background are thousands of other miniscule helpful spirits. Sibio said that she adapted these images from Mayan hieroglyphics. Also in the sky are black-and-white wheels that the artist says symbolize recycling in general, and technological recycling in particular.
I wouldn't have intuited all this without meeting the artist (and her sister and one of her two brothers) at the gallery. The personal connection provides another layer of understanding to these absorbing pieces, all made in the last three years. Sibio's hallucinations are ordered and instructive, beautiful and incapable of ever being fully grasped. Like all the best art, they have a mystical lure in them that immediately captures the eye.
For an artist who deals in illustrating perception as related to schizophrenia, incorporating fragmentation, hallucinations, interrupters and non-linear time sequencing into her work, Linda Carmella Sibio struck me as a remarkably grounded as well as literate woman. Having interviewed artists with various kinds of mental illness in and out of institutional settings, I felt compelled to ask how she could be so calm, focused and, well, normal.
Sibio replied that for the last three years, she has been extremely productive because of a new medication. For the three years before that, a series of medications that she took in order to control paranoid schizophrenia and manic depression had destroyed her short-term memory. Now living in California at a Buddhist retreat center, her life is more stable and productive than in the past.
Yet even in the midst of battling her illnesses, diagnosed while she was in college, Sibio has used her BFA and performance training to make both two-dimensional works and performance pieces that express what she and others with mental problems experience. A sampling of three long performance pieces (done at Highways in Santa Monica, Franklin Furnace in New York and the Walker Art Center) in which she is the sole actor -- and a very compelling one -- can be seen along with her drawings at the gallery.
Her performance pieces dramatize parts of her life and that of her mother, who also suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression. While her mother was in various insane asylums in her home state of West Virginia, Linda Carmella Sibio was in an orphanage. That's where she began to draw at age 11. Her wrenching separation from her mother is echoed in the poignant video excerpt from West Virginia Schizophrenic Blues, a three-and-one-half-hour work.
Winner of many awards, Sibio has taken on the plight of the disabled, whether their problems stem from mental, physical or emotional difficulties. She is committed to helping others use art in the way she has, to create a space in which to be themselves and to soothe their minds. She has formed and joined several nonprofit entities to accomplish this.
Her latest drawing, Tango without Arms, was inspired by a man she saw while she was living in New York. He had lost limbs, and she sensed shadow, spirit limbs around him.
The two main figures, one male and one female, are both in the process of regenerating arms and legs. The butterfly shape, of which they are a part, augurs well for their success.
Talking with Linda Carmella Sibio about her long visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she lived in New York, I could see the lasting influence that medieval and Renaissance religious art with their tortured saints had on this piece (and others). Certainly, her own Catholic upbringing and her own torturous life are part of the equation, too.
The use of comic books, one major source of imagery for artists from the 1950s onward, is here as well, tempering what could have been even more terrifying and seducing to the eye. The addition of thousands of tiny figures is all Sibio's and activates what would otherwise been flat, relaxing areas of color. The resulting combination of ingredients delivers a powerful esthetic jolt.
"Linda Carmella Sibio: The Insanity Principle" remains on view through Oct. 4, 2003, at the Andrew Edlin Gallery, 529 West 20th Street in New York.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.