Mary Anne Donovan

Constructed Paintings by Mary Anne Donovan


Mary Anne Donovan: Recent Works


The Way of unknowing


"I am rebegot

Of absence, darkness, death:

Things which are not. "

John Donne,

"Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day"


In Mary Anne Donovan's eerily beautiful works, we follow the progress of souls that have crossed the numinous threshold and have thus embarked on a night journey. If the dreamer's goal is the proverbial one — to come back with a relic, a sign of reconnection with the spirit world — in Donovan's works this sign implies a complex reconciliation: between woman/man and Nature; between the sleeping body and the quickening soul; and between the wounded past and the regenerative future. Like German and American Neo-Expressionist pictures of recent years, Donovan's works are highly charged, but in bearing witness to our time, particularly to the devastation of our environment and to our consequent psychic deracination, Donovan's works don't refer to historical events and only fitfully allude to apocalyptic end-time; instead, they posit a non-linear conception of time, repeatedly emblemized by the spiral — the circle that rebounds on itself and imagistically implies a dynamic model of the universe that has, as its corollary, psychic growth as continuous awakening. 


Because Donovan's characteristic subject is consciousness, predominant in her image system is the head (The Prophet, The Dreamer, The Green Man series — plates on back panel). That these heads look anguished, grotesquely incised with a palette knife, points to the fact that Donovan is playing with the convention of portraiture that urges the artist to record the sitter's appearance in order to reveal the soul's reality; Donovan's faces, in contrast and in extremis, seem to ignore the fashions and mores of our time, but, in essence, record the soul's response to them. These mauled faces are thus fittingly called prophets for in portraying what Paul and Meister Eckhart called the inner person, they reveal, as dreams do, the ravages our waking selves sustain. Just as the prophets, in the Hebraic tradition, exhorted the faithless to remember their deaths, Donovan's prophets remind us to remember our dreams; to realize our horrors are instructive, if faced. Finally, Donovan's heads invite us to reject the dualism that seeks to identify the outcast — the homeless, the mad, etc., — as the other. Indeed, in Voyeur, the mangled face that peers through the dwarfed window does not see the lotus-rich, Giverny-like world that has excluded him; instead, he sees us. Voyeur demands that we finally look through the window as if it were a mirror. Using the same motif, Oracle identifies the voice that resonates from the earth's mouth/navel/womb with the fire that traditionally betokens the Holy Spirit, with the tongue that signifies the older, serpent gods of the cave, and with the smoke that arises from a blood sacrifice in patterns that can be interpreted. The face that peers through the altar is both the priestess's and the outcast's, For the mystery, to paraphrase Donald Justice's Poem, is not for us:


This poem is not addressed to you

You may come into it briefly,

But no one will find you here, no one,

You will have changed before the poem will. 1


 Like poems, Donovan's pictures employ the rhetoric of self-address; their radiance is lustral: the light that arises from a continual process — underpainting, collaging, glazing — that purifies even while it occludes the central image. For Donovan, the journey is a night journey; the dream is the reality; the way of knowing is the way of unknowing, in keeping with the apophatic tradition that maintains that the mystic must enter into darkness in order to find, in St. John of the Cross's words, "the darkness that is light."2 In Response, the figure, radiated as if over-exposed, seems a visitor visible only in the dream's dark; similarily, in Saturation, the figure that is a fetus-like outline, echoed in the upper left by an egg-shaped disc, is immersed in a darkness which implies an inner illumination. For Saturation, Donovan has collaged a piece of rice paper onto gessoed paper; the bright underlayer and the elaborate overpainting suggest the levels of consciousness and the stages of psychic rebirth, just as the blue, spoked circle that is the rice paper's pattern implies two symbols of eternity: the lotus and the sun.


When the self awakens from its transforming sleep, it is powerful — not in its capacity for action, necessarily, but in its readiness to feel, to endure, and to enter into others' feelings. In Empath, Donovan has again collaged rice paper into the figure's form, but here the circle assumes its spiral incarnation in a version of the kundalini, the snake-like nexus of energy that flows when the human is in touch with the spirits of the earth and sky. This process is repeated in the haunting Metamorphosis II where the rice paper's pattern of butterflies becomes the subtext for the head's transformation, an alteration that reconnects the body with the soul and nature with eternity.


This act of reconnection is central to Donovan's image pattern; the intertwined trees that are the backdrop for the figures in Atonement and The Enchanted Forest, the leaves that swirl around the figures in Rebound and Empath, and even the material itself, the birch that Donovan often uses — call attention to the age-old identification of woman/man/god with the tree (Of Good and Evil, Of Knowledge, Of Life, etc.). In Donovan's work this connection finds its most direct expression in the Green Man, a variation of the vegetation god that appeared in Western Literature most notably in Gawain And The Green Knight, wherein Gawain lops off the Green Knight's head only to stand in amazement as the Green Knight picks it up and rides off, reminding the hero to seek him, in a year's time, so that the Knight can exact his retribution. In our culture and in this time, the image of the Green Man reminds us of our interdependence with nature, specifically with the oxygen-producing tree, and of our fatal trespass in trivializing that connection. Though cautionary, the Green Man is an image of hope: of Nature's regenerative power (the head grows back), of our own potential nobility in facing the consequences of our acts (Gawain keeps his date); and of Nature's goodness (the Green Knight benignly judges the hero).


To remember our debts and to offer atonement are underlying themes in Donovan's most difficult, most beautiful, and most chastening pictures. Rebound’s shape, carved of wood, is reminiscent of both wings and of a mantle — a protective sphere wherein the naked figure, which again equates vulnerability with power, binds her arms around her body to assert her allegiances with the earth, with the spirit, with the forces — religious, emotional, familial — she has broken free from. In Atonement, the figure, ash-gray in keeping with the Modern association of holocaust and consciousness, holds a flower-like emanation that seems to have been harrowingly wrested from the underworld. The yellow-green that surrounds this figure suggests the wet, fertile green that the fourteenth century mystic Hildegarde of Bingen identified with spiritual health; its counterpart is the darker, more complicated green of the larger panel whose tree-like swirls indicate the bewildering state of mind from which this spectral figure has emerged.

   The gift brought back, in Donovan's works, is not primarily a relic but a message; hence, her titles often allude to the voice and to its reverberations. (Speaking In Tongues, Response, The Prophet series, Oracle, etc.) While the message may not be meant for us, its intonations are resonant and they can be read. Just as Vishnu sleeps upon the serpent in order to preserve the world for its ultimate dissolution and subsequent rebirth, Donovan's dreamers preserve the connection to the spirit world, a connection our culture ceaselessly denies. Her profoundly spiritual works call us to close our eyes and enter into darkness and thus waken the dreamer within. If these images are powerful, even violent, so, too, is birth, whether psychic or actual; and art that is in touch with these chthonic emotions is, to paraphrase Matthew Fox, born, not made.3


Donald Justice, "Poem," Departures (New York, 1973), p. 38. St. John of the Cross's meditation has often been adapted, most notably by T. S. Eliot in   "East Coker" of The Four Quartets in The Collected Poems (New York. 1970Lp. 187.

3 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Sante Fe, 1983), pp. 220-229.

Maureen Bloomfield is a writer and art critic living in Cincinnati. Her art reviews have appeared in ARTFORUM, ARTnews, Dialogue, New Art Examiner, Sculpture Magazine and The Art Academy News. Maureen Bloomfield is the Editor ‘n Chief of the Artist Magazine.