“I couldn’t have done these 20 years ago,” Deborah Gregg says as she gestures toward examples of her work, which fills her light-drenched Parkland, Florida, studio and spills over into the living spaces beyond. “You have to live through things.” She emphasizes the words ‘live through’ to make her point. Art, for Gregg, is not created in some ivory tower, but forged in the crucible of lived experience.
For this latest body of work, “Inscriptive Manifestations: The Inner Voice,” Gregg has drawn on two decades of living through the myriad things life has thrown her way. Without delving too much into the details, she alludes to personal setbacks and losses, crises affecting both her and members of her family.
Like many other visual artists, Gregg seems vaguely reluctant to try to articulate just what it is she sets out to do in her work. I mention a quote from the American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967): “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” She likes it, and seems visibly relieved, as if freed from the burden of having to explain the work too fully. Let someone else come up with the words.
Another quote comes to mind as I continue to explore the pieces that will make up Gregg’s first solo exhibition, at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. This time, it’s the words of the iconoclastic French theater director, playwright, actor, and poet Antonin Artaud (1896-1949). “If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time,” he wrote, “it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.”
Artaud was writing about theater (the work in question is called The Theater and It’s Double), but I think some of the ideas are applicable to the visual arts as well, and to Gregg’s most recent work in particular. As ingenious as most of her creations are – meticulous, labor-intensive, startlingly imaginative in their appropriation of such a wide variety of raw materials – I never get the sense that she’s dabbling, merely toying with the tools at her disposal for easy effects.
Besides, I don’t think Artaud’s intent was so much to denigrate or discourage artistic experimentation and innovation as it was to promote artistic fervor or intensity of expression. Gregg’s work has the fervor and intensity he was after. There’s an urgency to her work here that he would have understood and approved.
The roots of this urgency to communicate – to signal through the flames – have a few sources. One is Gregg’s background as a graphic designer, a profession in which the design of a given piece of work is subsumed in the overall message that is being conveyed. Another is the artist’s decision to start incorporating inscriptions into her work, a turning point she reached when she was in Mexico for a workshop a few years back.
The words – always her own, never those of others, for a change – were almost indecipherable in Vesuvius, the first work in which Gregg emphasized an inscription. It’s as if she were less concerned with people being able to read the text and more interested in just having it there, knowing it’s there. “I think it puts magic into the piece,” she says simply. She’s right, and she has continued the practice. Now, more often than not, the words are clearly legible, but she still sometimes conceals them in hard-to-read nooks and crannies of the work. She likes the idea of the viewer having to labor at getting to the text: “You have to discover something.”
Another component contributing to the urgency in Gregg’s work is her use of found objects. She describes herself as a “mixed-media sculptor” and prefers the term “inscriptive manifestations” over the more commonly used “assemblages.” To judge from the many trays of carefully categorized objects in her studio, she’s a veteran junk hound, always on the lookout for something she can re-purpose for her own uses. This impulse to put old objects together in new ways reflects a need to get the thing done, to say what needs to be said and move on to the next project. To me, this is the opposite of the “artistic dallying with forms” Artaud abhorred.
Still, as much as the Artaud quote seems to apply, something about it also nags at me, and upon further reflection I realize it is the Frenchman’s use of the word “victims.” The characters in Gregg’s work and the narratives they imply (and her reliance on language invariably suggests a human presence) are anything but victims. They’re survivors. “Rip down the curtain / Tear down the wall,” she writes in one piece, and the words are those of someone who has passed through the crisis. Maybe it’s better to think of Deborah Gregg and her work as a Phoenix rather than a victim sacrificed at the stake – a miraculous, magnificent bird, signaling through the flames that consume it, only to emerge from its own ashes, stronger and wiser, armed with words that describe what the journey was like.
Michael Mills is a writer and photographer based in Fort Lauderdale. He is an art critic of New Times Broward/Palm Beach since 1997.