Heather Saunders is an artist, commuter, librarian & feminist
Monday, June 29, 2009
What happens in the studio stays in the studio
"I was disappointed to see Emma escape the grasp of one male genius only to fall into bed with another."
After two long days spent packing and storing the contents of our Toronto apartment/my studio, I indulged in reading fiction on the road trip back to New York. With two sewing machines, a judy (body form), and boxes of fabric stowed safely, I was happy to lose myself in Samantha Peale’s The American Painter Emma Dial (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2009).
New York-based Emma Dial used to be an avid swimmer, but now she struggles to keep her head above water, so to speak, as the studio assistant for Michael Freiburg. He hasn’t touched a canvas in years because Emma’s work is such a good match for his own, which makes him incredibly dependent on her. Michael is Manhattan personified: thrilling and fast-paced, with no desire to slow down. Emma, meanwhile, would like nothing better than a reprieve in her Brooklyn studio. Alas, she is entangled in a complex relationship with Michael, compounded by their illicit sexual relations (he is married). Clearly, chain smoking isn’t the only addiction that Emma and Michael share.
The female protagonist finds herself living a cliché that was once exhilarating but now feels suffocating. Emma is a talented artist in her own right who has been living in the shadow of Michael, but also of her scatterbrained and sensual filmmaker friend, Irene Duffy. Although she redefines her identity in relation to Michael and Irene, damaging her relationships with them along the way, it is her interactions with the peripheral characters that bring Emma the greatest clarity. For example, she confides in Michael’s collectors, the Breslauers, that she has a studio and subsequently daydreams about actually making work there. She inherited the studio lease from her former professor, Meredith Davies, whom she assumed to be a sell-out when she skipped town for love. However, she spots Meredith’s work in The Armory Show and realizing that she has maintained her artistic practice, is reminded of her own artistic goals. While walking through the lower east side, she encounters a former classmate, Chris Cagnasola, to whom she blatantly lies about her artistic pursuits, which reveals the heartbreaking discrepancy between the life she has and the life she craves. Overwhelmed with self-consciousness, Emma even avoids her mother over the holidays, because she can’t handle her judgment as an art historian about her daughter creating work for another artist instead of furthering her own career. Ultimately, Emma realizes that self-acceptance is more important than anyone else’s acceptance of her, prompting some major life changes that propel the book forward.
Here's my two cents' worth: I have a hard time buying the idea that Michael, being a landscape painter, is one of the three artists that changed the face of New York painting in the 1970s. I suppose they needed to be landscapes so that he could gender them and make annoying remarks (in front of his wife, no less) like suggesting that Emma hasn't made the water “sexy enough”. I can appreciate the fact that as landscapes, they remind the reader that Emma is trapped in a metropolis. Overall, I was disappointed to see Emma escape the grasp of one male genius only to fall into bed with another. Even though she has a moment of self-assertion with her new lover, it’s rather subdued. I wanted more for her, but the book leaves off just where there is a suggestion that she will begin to give herself more.
Book cover reproduced in 2020 via fair use/dealing. Source: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/books/robinson/robinson4-6-09_detail.asp?picnum=1
Heather Saunders is the Dean of Libraries and Archives at Acadia University, and beforehand, she was contract Copyright and Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Winnipeg. Her foray into the specialty of art librarianship began with the TD Bank Internship at the National Gallery of Canada, followed by appointment as faculty art librarian at Purchase College (SUNY), and later, as Director of the Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Previous to the Cleveland Museum of Art, at Nipissing U., she was a sessional art history instructor while working in middle management in the library. As an artist, she has exhibited in Canada, the US, and the Netherlands.