“Drawing on influences as diverse as Flemish paintings, Oriental rugs, Renaissance frescoes and works by Picasso, Lani Irwin’s paintings are elusive and dramatic. Her figures, interestingly garbed, are most often women, poised for dance or engaged in games of chance and balancing acts; and allude to life’s psychological convolutions and complexities. While they stare out at the viewer assuredly, she has eschewed a particular narrative, and creates complicated and mysterious tableaux of enigmatic symbology, which elude facile interpretation and offer a plethora of mysteries to ponder. Carefully conceived and consummately painted, her skill is manifest in the creation of these beautifully engaging images.”
- Joan Markowitz, Co-Executive Director and Senior Curator
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, U.S.A.
“The women of Lani Irwin reveal a system of narrative relationships that only the heart is able to unravel. Hers is a work that is dense in desire and necessity, which gives life to a circus of universal characters, who seem to incarnate private emotions, with the only option to emerge as similar likenesses to escape from a destiny that would otherwise place them into an incomprehensible poetry.”
- Viviana Siviero, Critic and Independent Curator, Italy
"All her portraits show a hidden and restrained desire to reach out, but the woman in the paintings is imprisoned in her own body and in her own mind. She is self controlled, nevertheless she is caught in a treacherous balancing act. She and her body are - like everything else - transitory. As long as she can perform she lives. The meaning of life she has found in herself. People will tolerate almost anything except a lack of meaning. Even the vast emptiness of space and the infinite stillness of time is full of meaning, as the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has pointed out. And this search for meaning is the theme of Lani Irwin's magical work."
- Stan Van Houcke, Journalist and Writer, Netherland
For a quarter-century Lani Irwin has been painting mysterious interiors
populated by mannequins, puppets, toys and human figures. While her
dolls are reminiscent of the lay figures Giorgio de Chirico deploys, her
hushed tableaux may suggest the domestic enigmas of Balthus. Yet the
artists Irwin most admires are not from the twentieth century but from
an earlier period, the cusp of the Italian Renaissance. "I love the
strange disquiet of some of the paintings," she writes. "I often do not
know the particulars of the story, nor do I need to. And so it is with
my own paintings."
Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1947, Irwin traveled
throughout Europe as a child, studied in Munich and Grenoble, and earned
B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from American University in Washington, D.C. She
has been exhibiting since the mid-1970s, and examples of her work can be
found in the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Since 1987 Irwin has lived and worked, alongside her husband, the
painter Alan Feltus, just outside the Umbrian city of Assisi, a place of
pilgrimage for admirers both of St. Francis and Giotto. Uccello and
Piero della Francesca are among Irwin's other favorites, along with the
Sienese artist Simone Martini (c.1283-1344), whose frescoes in the Lower
Church of the Basilica of St. Francis entranced her when she first
visited Assisi in 1977. Martini, a pupil of Duccio, was a
contemporary of Giotto (1266-1337), but in his courtly elegance Martini
seems a more Gothic artist. His scenes depicting the life of St. Martin
evoke a chivalric milieu. Unlike Giotto, whose figures can convey deep
emotion, Martini maintains an aura of refined reticence. Irwin's own
paintings have a similar atmosphere.
Irwin's response to her historical models is complex. Avoiding overtly
religious iconography and historicist pastiche, she shares the early
Renaissance artist's fascination with geometry and spatial
relationships. Often she draws on secular genres, such as the profile
portrait. The inventiveness with which she manipulates the figure-ground
puzzle is striking in these Renaissance-influenced compositions.
Compare, for example, a matched pair of Irwin's paintings from 1996, The
Dice and the Dog and Three Wishes and Nine Lives, with Piero's
celebrated diptych Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Portrait of
Battista Sforza (c. 1472). Spurred perhaps by a taste for antique
cameos, Renaissance artists made profile portraits fashionable, in
paintings as well as medallions. In depicting the rulers who transformed
the hill-town of Urbino into a principality noted for its learning and
aesthetic riches, Piero had them face each other, half figures against a
continuous background, a luminous miniature landscape. They are noble
but unidealized individuals: The duke's broken nose is unmistakable; his
wife's pallor may reflect the fact that hers is a posthumous portrait
(perhaps based on a death mask).
Like Piero, Irwin shows her male and female subjects half-figure and in
profile, and she establishes a continuous background. Irwin's devotion
to the interior, however, precludes even a glimpse of the natural world
through a window. The background is flat and decoratively geometric. Two rows of
brick-and-brown tiles, divided diagonally by a curved line, surmount a
border of black, rust and cream; below, the wall is black. At the bottom
of the composition, the figures are truncated by a table or shelf in a
checkerboard pattern. The fascination with pattern, another
characteristic of Renaissance art, is carried over in the figures-in the
bold black-and-white stripes of the man's hooded robe and the (otherwise
unclothed) woman's cap. On the table in front of the figures are groups
of small objects that seem to have emblematic value. The man, arms
folded, looks straight ahead; the woman, her head bowed, contemplates
the small bi-colored disk she holds between two fingers. Her gestures
seem ritualistic. Irwin provides no clue about the identity of the man
and woman or their relationship.
The small objects in front of them, however, hint at meaning, like the
attributes carried by saints and allegorical figures in earlier
iconography. The man's objects are a polyhedron, two shells, a pair of
dice and a small painted toy dog on a pedestal. The woman's objects are
a rather ferocious-looking toy cat (perhaps Indian) and three Tarot
cards. The choices resonate with gender conventions: dog and dice,
gambling, for the man, a cat and Tarot cards, associated with intuitive
divination, for the woman. But the exact meaning remains deliberately
elusive. The Tarot cards displayed are the Ace of Cups, Two of Coins (or
Pentacles) and Three of Cups. Cups are usually interpreted as governing
the emotions, especially love, while coins represent material wealth and
Tarot cards appear frequently in Irwin's paintings, and their appeal is
understandable, first, because they descend from her beloved Italian
Renaissance and, second, because they are clearly symbolic yet open to
shifting interpretations. While its ultimate origin and meaning remain
obscure, the Tarot deck as we know it descends from the Italian
Renaissance tarocchi, which included astrological figures and
personified allegories, the cardinal virtues, contemporary potentates
such as the Emperor, the Empress and the Pope, alongside more cryptic
characters such as the Hanged Man. The full Tarot deck includes the
minor arcana, divided into four suits: Swords, Cups, Coins (or
Pentacles) and Wands. The Tarot suits correspond to Spades, Hearts,
Diamonds, and Clubs in the modern deck of ordinary playing cards. But it
is the major arcana-twenty-two archetypal trump cards-that has
fascinated interpreters for centuries. Readers have discovered systems
based on comparative mythology, Jewish Kabbala, Neo-Platonism, various
schools of occultism and Jungian psychology. The trumps offer a
dramatis personae for an infinite number of private narratives. Like
gravitational fields, they attract constellations of meanings.
Irwin uses Tarot cards in many of her paintings, as part of a card game
or laid out for a reading, or simply as still-life elements. Some of her
titles allude to specific trumps-The Heirphant (1996), Le Pendu (French
for the Hanged Man) from 1992, and Anima Mundi (1995), which gives a
Jungian gloss to the final trump, the World. In most Tarot decks the
World is depicted as a beautiful naked woman dancing inside an oval or
standing on a circle, a symbol of completion. In Irwin's painting a
naked woman appears in the central panel, gazing down contemplatively at
a big, colorful child's ball.Flanking the central panels are compartments-four on each side-that contain a variety of toys. The composition itself owes something to
a popular medieval configuration, in which the full-length figure of a
saint, presented hieratically frontal, is flanked by stacks of smaller
scenes illustrating episodes from the saint's life. Such formal
paraphrases, like the use of Tarot cards, allow Irwin to evoke an
atmosphere of mythic meaning without divulging too much.
The Hanged Man, one of the most enigmatic of the trumps, is a favorite
image. Suspended upside down by one leg from a gibbet made of tree
trunks, the Hanged Man looks surprisingly serene. A sacrificial figure,
he has been associated with Christ, Osiris and Attis, one of the
death-and-resurrection deities catalogued by Sir James Frazer in The
Gold Bough (1890-1915) and subsequently mentioned by T.S. Eliot in The
Waste Land (1922). W.B. Yeats, an adept in the Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn, was steeped in the discipline of the Tarot, and its imagery
arises frequently in his poetry. While the Tower trump became Yeats's
personal emblem, he refers to the Hanged Man in his poem "Vacillation." Yeats captures the curious playfulness of this magical figure:
And he that Attis' image hangs between
That staring fury and the blind lush leaf
May know not what he knows, but knows not grief.
The Hanged Man has been associated with Odin, the Norse god who did not
die but hung upside down on the World Tree to gain the secret knowledge
of the magic runes. In a recent interpretation Jamake Highwater proposes
as modern avatars of the Hanged Man outsider-artists such as Oscar Wilde
and Arthur Rimband. "The Hanged Man," Highwater remarks, "persists as a
talisman of marginalityÝ." In Irwin's Transparent Whisper (2000) the
Hanged Man card is juxtaposed with the three-quarter figure of a woman
wearing only a sheer slip-like garment; she knots a scarf of the same
material around her own neck. Her body is hieratically frontal, her head
in profile. The scarf flies upward on both sides, defying gravity; a
rose hangs downward from the top of the frame. Like the Hanged Man, she
is serene, introspective, perhaps undertaking a ritual that entails risk
and magical rewards.
The Hanged Man also appears as one of four cards-the others are the Ace
of Wands, the Magician, and the Moon-in Irwin's Three Saints in Four
Acts, a title that recalls the avant-garde opera by Virgil Thomson and
Gertrude Stein. In Irwin's painting three dark-haired women-with their
enigmatic expressions and ritualized gestures, they could be
priestesses, aspects of a triple deity or Fates-stand behind a
slate-blue table. On the table are arranged the four Tarot cards, a few
crumpled daffodils and three small red balls, the kind that might be
used by a juggler. The Juggler is another name for the Magician trump,
which appears in this spread.The space in Three Saints is as ambiguous as the iconography. While the three half-length figures are convincingly modeled, the salmon-colored
background and-to a lesser extent-the slate-blue table read visually as
flat fields of color. And yet the three red balls are casting shadows,
suggesting weight. As a painter,Irwin self-consciously manipulates illusionistic space and flat shapes
on a two-dimensional surface. By incorporating Tarot cards-stylized
archaic representations printed on stiff paper-into her compositions,
she adds another layer of visual and conceptual complexity. Irwin's
paintings resist straightforward interpretations. Jamake Highwater's
characterization of the High Priestess trump could be applied to her
tableaux; they exist "as a contradiction without the need for resolution
Like Renaissance artists, Irwin uses pattern to manipulate pictorial
space, both to establish an illusion of recession and to emphasize the
flatness of the canvas. In The Space Between (1999) the orthogonals of
the black and white floor tiles read as perspective lines. A colorful
ball, suitable for a child or a circus performer, is fully modeled, a
textbook geometric solid. The backdrop, on the other hand, seems
perfectly flat: rosy brick circles on mauve-brown for the pattern above
the chair-rail line, solid forest green below. Irwin's off-beat color
harmonies are idiosyncratic, but she borrows her patterns from a variety
of sources, the elaborate church and palazzo pavements of the Italian
Renaissance, Etruscan floors, the sumptuous fabrics depicted in Flemish
paintings and Oriental rugs. In The Space Between the two female figures
participate in the artist's demonstration of the dynamic between space
and pattern. One, poised on tiptoe, wears shorts and a top in
contrasting patterns, which are distorted and given volume by the
contours of the body underneath. The other figure bends over, apparently
measuring the room with her hands. As the phrase "the space between" suggests, the world of Irwin's paintings is a fictional space, a theater
of the mind where paradoxes are visualized and cryptic performances are
Despite the haunting stillness of her scenes, there are recurring
references to play in Irwin's oeuvre. The colorful folk art toys she
collects evoke the primal magic of children's games. She depicts ordinary card games as well as
Tarot readings. In The Cardplayers (1998-99) the hieratically still man
and woman seated at the table are seen in Renaissance profile, faintly
archaic despite the man's backwards baseball cap. The fingers of a hand
pulling aside a curtain behind them adds to the uncanniness of the
scene. Allusions to theater or circus performances are common. The three
barefoot women in The Mermaid, the Swan, and the Tightrope Walker
(1995), seated in chairs and facing in three different directions, could
be waiting for some arcane performance cue. A large ball, inscribed with
faint letters, is planted in the center at their feet, and the geometric
pattern of the wall suggests the chromatic experiments of a Renaissance
Acrobatic figures appear in Shadowside of the Moonlight Cat (1995),
alongside the eponymous folk art feline. One woman, naked to the waist
but wearing purple tights, balances on a colorful ball. She holds a
sprig of flowers above her companion's head, although the seated woman
turns away and gazes-in Renaissance profile and a cardinal's red hat-out
of the composition. The props have been reduced in Backstage (2000). The
acrobat stands on tiptoe next to the bright ball, looping a length of
string behind her back. She wears a marvelous transparent dress with
colored stripes that somehow suggest a planetary diagram. She seems to
be rehearsing, while her companion, in white smock and black stockings,
watches with folded arms. Osirian Players (1995) is more elaborate. The
backdrop features a frieze of carousel soldiers and cowboys. Two women
in Pierrot-inspired acrobat costumes stand back-to-back, arms linked,
amid hoops and small white juggler's balls. The title allusion to the
Egyptian god and a Tarot card on the floor, the Chariot trump, hint at
the ritual origins of theater.
Irwin has been including mannequins in her tableaux for years,
specifically several Italian church mannequins from the eighteenth or
early nineteenth century. With their nearly life-size scale and
naturalistic flesh tones, mannequins are among the most convincing of
human simulacra, and their ambiguous status-somewhere between object and
figure-makes them a disturbing presence. All figurative artists are
illusionists, to some extent, but Irwin calls attention to the painter's
role as trickster and stage manager. Although the church mannequins were
originally supposed to be completed with elaborate wigs and clothing,
Irwin depicts them without hair and arms, or reveals the mechanics of
the form underneath, the perfunctory wooden bodies and ball-socket arms.
The flesh tints, rosy lips and dark brows of these props can give them a
startling humanity, especially in their vulnerable undressed state.
Irwin likes to play with the ontological status of her dramatis
personae. She presents a variety of human simulacra, marionettes as well
as mannequins, that seem both less and more than human. In a famous 1810
essay the German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist articulated the
theatrical power of marionettes: their purity of form was unmarred by
visible emotion. "Grace," von Kleist wrote, "appears purest
simultaneously in the human body that has either none at all or else
infinite consciousness-that is, in the puppet or in the god." Irwin
exploits the magic of the marionette in her painting Different Worlds
(1999). A richly dressed marionette, perhaps a character in some Indian
religious drama, confronts a woman, shown half-length and in profile in
the style of a Renaissance portrait. Slightly smaller but
naturalistically polychromed, the male marionette faces the woman, and
the two seem to be making eye contact. His jointed hands hang loosely in
front of him; his feet are folded up beneath him. Another colorful
marionette hangs suspended from above, half-obscuring a third puppet. A
brown curtain, a familiar Irwin device, is pulled aside to frame the
tableau. The delicate strings of the marionettes are echoed by the thin
red ribbon the women coaxes from her hair, the long stem of a rose,
which she holds in her other hand and the spindly shaft of a peacock
feather that materializes at the nape of her neck, rising from the red
cap of the laughing clown toy.
There are other objects displayed on the brown tabletop in Different
Worlds, a pink rose, a child's ball, an Egyptian ibis figure,
polychromed in red, blue and yellow, and the overturned base of another
statuette, seen in synecdoche as a base and non-human feet falling out
of the composition. These props combine playfulness with shamanic
resonance. Many of Irwin's still-life or still-life-with-figure
compositions suggest private altars. Cultural historian Kay Turner has
outlined the principles of the altar-making aesthetic, popular,
especially among women, in Roman Catholic, Hindu and Voudon traditions.
Building an altar is based on setting "potent images in relation to each
other." Those potent images can be explicitly magical, like Tarot
cards or marionettes from mythic theater, or more personal, a child's
ball or a rose, a painted clown or a folk art animal. An altar is
inherently theatrical, an aggregate of miniature forms representing
cosmic power, a microcosm.
Unlike public altars, which must maintain a certain level of orthodoxy,
private altars can also be eclectic, even perverse in their combinations
of elements. As the title of Different Worlds suggests, objects and
images from diverse traditions can be juxtaposed with endless variety.
The marionettes come from a world of Indian myth; the ibis alludes to
the Egyptian god Thoth, patron of writers and judge of souls; the clown
looks like a variation on the commedia dell'arte. The human figure
herself, who is after all but the painted image of a woman, could be a
paraphrase from an Italian Renaissance portrait.
The spatial dynamic of altar-making, as described by Turner, also fits
Irwin's compositional strategy: "the interplay of dimension and
intersection: a two-dimensional plane (a table, dresser or other flat
surface) holding three-dimensional objects (statues, candles and so
forth) often intersected by a vertical plane, usually a wall, displaying
more images." The very act of bringing diverse objects into the sacred
precinct of the altar changes them in subtle ways. The confined spaces
of Irwin's paintings work a similar magic. The objects on an altar
accumulate over time, and they are selected and arranged intuitively.
Irwin often spends months on her paintings, alternating positions and
contours, but she is also sensitive to the near-autonomy of an object,
which can "take on a life of its own."
In spite of the eclectic quality of her objects and the disjunctions of
scale she exploits, Irwin's scenes are calm, with none of the jazzy
juxtapositions of collage. Everything is absorbed into and permeated
with her own atmosphere. The geometric forms, with their history of
mathematical idealism, contribute to this serenity. The human
participants in her scenes are usually impassive and smooth-limbed,
stylized in a way that brings them close to the mannequins who inhabit
the same spaces.
Slowly building up layers of oil on linen, Irwin achieves a flat and
very smooth surface. Her brushstrokes do not call attention to
themselves. What unifies these compositions most strikingly, however,
may be her unusual chromatic harmonies. In the early 1980s dusty rose
and slate blue, brick and sage green predominated. Stronger blacks and
reds have enriched her palette since, but the range within a single
canvas remains limited. Usually a single tone unifies figure and ground,
which glow like banked embers or shimmer with a dusky silver undertone.
The Armadillo (1998) features the eponymous animal (real or at least
stuffed, rather than a toy) on a slate gray table in front of a
dark-haired woman, whose black cloak matches her hair. Her brown dress
varies the brown of the armadillo. She wears around her neck an Italian ex-voto heart. The wallpaper behind her is magical: a design of salamanders or lizards
curved into arabesques, in rose-pink on mauve, colors that pick up the
luminous pallor of her skin.
All representational painters play with the paradox of perception. We
acknowledge that fact when we refer to an apparently three-dimensional
object in a painting as both "realistic" and "Illusionistic." Our double
awareness is part of our enjoyment, a recognition of the
artist-magician's skill. Lani Irwin takes this legerdemain a step
further by juxtaposing human figures and their simulacra, by exploring
the liminal space between objects and figure, between figure and ground.
On the threshold between reality and illusion, Irwin's paintings are
simultaneously reticent and dramatic.
1. Journal entry, reprinted in "Lani Irwin: Paintings," Katharina Rich
Perlow Gallery, New York City (October 2000), n.p.
2. Cited, Jill Wechsler, "Lani Irwin," American Artist (June 1983),
3. For a good overview, see Richard Cavendish, The Tarot (New York:
Harper & Row, 1975).
4. For a compendium comparing designs and commentaries, see Bill Butler,
Dictionary of the Tarot (New York: Schocken, 1975).
5. See Kathleen Raine, Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn (Dublin:
Dolmen Press, 1976), p.56.
6. Jamake Highwater, The Language of Vision: Meditations on Myth and
Metaphor (New York: Grove Press, 1994), p. 210.
7. Ibid., pg 69.
8. "On the Marionette Theater," trans. by Roman Pasha; see also Pasha's
essay "The Inanimate Incarnate" in Fragments for a History of the Human
Body, Part One, ed. by Michael Feher with Romona Nadaff and Nadia Tazi
(New York: Zone, 1989), pp.410-429.
9. Kay Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women's
Altars (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 96.
10. Ibid, p.97.
11. Cited, Wechsler, p. 44.
- Gail Leggio, American Arts Quarterly, 2001 Vol. XVIII, No.2
Lani Irwin's new series of paintings
named Allegories challenge the viewer to directly engage the
human nude figure without material or sexual diversions. In these ten
paintings, the physical strength, emotional intensity, and the absence
of overt sexual appeal in her figures, Irwin attempts to define a new
post-September eleventh contemporary female beauty.
In the Three Graces (2003), a 100 cm by 100 cm oil on linen painting
of three female figures, two are facing forward and one with her back
to the viewer is gazing to the right. Painted with a muted palette, each
nude figure wears a sheer arm band of velvet transparent fabric on their
arms from wrist to shoulder. Their hair is tied back in buns and they
stand with their feet firmly planted. Their physical form displays muscle
tone and physicality without being either aerobics class formed or anorexic.
Small breasted, their pubic regions resemble bikini bottoms rather than
sexual organs. The last vestige of the western civilization's buhrkas
for modern women is hinted at with a piece of silk held by the center
figure behind the two flanking women. Otherwise the nude women are unselfconsciously
facing the viewer as if intensely observing the observer while being observed.
In the Luna Moth (2002), a 74 cm by 92 cm oil on linen painting,
a single nude female figure holds a luna moth in one raised hand. Presented
on a stage in front of a raised curtain and red streamers, the vulnerability
of life and beauty is juxtaposed. The red haired woman is gazing at the
viewer and inwardly at her modern fate. Alone on stage without protection,
or concealment, she stares pensively, as the length and fragility of a
moth's life is compared to our own. Her strength is communicated in her
physical tone and her lack of fear.
Irwin's are not sympathetic figures. They are self contained emotionally
and experience each composition as individuals. Though physical fit and
beautiful they remain vulnerable to the degree that modern society has
made all of humanity vulnerable to the threat of war and terrorism.
Rarely does fine art portray women as angry. Irwin pushes her figures
emotionally to a controlled pitch of anxiety and anger reflecting a thinking
persons? post-September eleventh concern for the world and personal safety.
These are not figures that enjoy being at risk of war or terrorism and
they communicate that emotion. They are also not out of control or overwhelmed.
They are intelligent and aware compositions of contemporary women and
the figures are angry and anxious as a result.
In an era where nudity is commonplace in media and society, the seriously
painted human nude, male or female, is increasingly rare. Contemporary
female figures are often obscured in commercial product placements or
overwhelmed by being made sexual. Nudity has become perhaps too
closely associated with commerce and pornography to stand on its own
and evoke intelligent thought.
Likewise beauty, which Irwin rightly asserts exists to inspire the individual,
has been hijacked in modern art and commerce to stimulate sexual and
commercial response. In contemporary art, classical forms of beauty are
under critical suspicion and rare in canvasses and showrooms.
In Irwin's works nudity is not license; it is a path to insight into the
evolving female form and consciousness in a post-September eleventh global
society. Vulnerability and anxiety are not hidden. Strength and intensity
are balanced. The beauty of the human figure is asserted as both a right
and a fact in an ambiguous and fragile world. It is unusual for a collection
of contemporary paintings to assert the nude with such strength and vulnerability,
and to achieve such beauty without sexual intensity.
Irwin should be seen in at least two contexts: one in the continuum of
painters from Lorenzetti, Giotto, Piero, and Uccello up to De Chirico
who created and carry forward the Italian schools of painting. Here her
palette and formalism can be found. The second in the context of contemporary
painters, one must look to painters such as Gillian Pederson Kreg, Edward
Schmidt, Jane Fisher, Carlo Maria Mariani and Richard Piccolo. And here
she stands apart as a unique voice among contemporary painters. Her figures
are not sentimental, sexual or reworkings of ancient themes.
In Irwin's new paintings named Allegories, the figure's muscular
form and emotional strength combine to transform the female nude to a
new level of beauty. While vulnerable in a contemporary sense they are
neither submissive nor sexual. They should be seen and thought about today.
Mr. Jennings is an art collector who is traveling in Italy in the summer of
2003. He resides in San Francisco California with his family and collects
contemporary representational art.
- Joseph Jennings, Rome, July 2003