Pure Bliss

Back in 2002, I discovered the amazing artist, Rachel Bliss, in a show at the Ruth Morpeth Gallery. I’m excited to see that her work is returning to the area at Lambertville’s Riverrun Gallery, July 3-26.(Pictured at left is “Jumping Bunny.”

Here’s what I wrote about her Morpeth exhibit:

At the Ruth Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell, all the eyes in the paintings have been cut out and aligned with peep holes on the walls. Actors have been hired to stand on the other side of the walls and look through the slits.

Of course this isn’t true, but the eyes of Rachel Bliss’s portraits do appear to follow visitors around the room. Set in her surreal expressionistic paintings, the eyes are startlingly lifelike, large and almond shaped, making contact. Sometimes the eyes are glassy, focused on different spaces, as if the person isn’t really looking out but seeing something deep within, perhaps a dream. So when the artist walks into the gallery with long slinky black hair and magnificent blue-gray eyes – eyes that do focus, eyes that seem to see a world beyond the ordinary – it is no wonder they look as if you have seen them before.

But nothing about these paintings looks familiar. Rachel Bliss has developed her own distinct vision. “I didn’t have a choice,” says the Rochester, N.Y., native, who has lived in Philadelphia since 1982. “I spent my early years trying to fit in. I decided to make being different a virtue. I want to fit in. I want other human beings to like me, to be respected by my peers, to earn my keep.”

Ms. Bliss, 40, has worked as a counselor to sexual-assault victims, where she “encountered firsthand the fractured bodies and psyches of the urban dispossessed,” writes Rider University sociology professor James Dickinson in a catalog accompanying a one-woman show Ms. Bliss had there in 1997. That disturbing view, combined with “the complex culture of urban, working-class communities” and her own inner-city experience, a world that includes AIDS victims and crack peddlers, gives an edge to her paintings.

“Her work is therefore uncompromising and aggressive, and depicts reality – however unpleasant that might be,” writes Dr. Dickinson. “The heavily worked surfaces, the nature of the materials used and the subdued but elegant palette give Bliss’s work…the look and feel of worn icons.”

While capturing life’s agonies and ironies, there is also whimsy in the work. Not coincidentally, Ms. Bliss believes portraits are self-portraits, revealing much about the artist who empathizes with the subject. She is visiting the Hopewell gallery on a rainy afternoon with Elijah, her 11-year-old son who sits quietly with a book, following every word of the conversation and filling in where his mother’s train of thought lapses. Ms. Bliss sorts through a bag full of little characters on tiles rendered in a raw, childlike style. No two are alike.

“Rachel has a limitless imagination,” says gallery owner Ruth Morpeth. “She can do anything from sensitive, strictly classical portraiture to whimsical, angst-ridden pieces – they run the gamut of emotions.”

Inspiration comes from the “lot of characters in our lives,” says Ms. Bliss, who belongs to a family of artists – both parents, an uncle, two cousins and her younger brother Harry, an illustrator for New Yorker covers. Ms. Bliss contributes illustrations to the New Yorker, as well as The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, Philadelphia Magazine, The Sciences and other magazines.

“I do these for fun,” she says of the little tiles. “We don’t watch TV or see many movies because they are often sexist and racist.

“But I love popular culture so I reference popular characters,” says the single mother of three. Among the assortment of clowns, a nun, skeletal figures, a baseball player and a queen with a crown, is the familiar face of Fred Flintstone. She has created a Batman with a rectangular body, square head with signature bat ears, arms that are wiry coils with pincer hands and wagon-wheel feet. These are made at the request of Eli, whom she home schools, Freda, 9, and Rosalie, 3.

Rather than struggle to make time away from her children in order to paint, she embraces parenting and creativity as one. The playfulness of her family life enters her work, and she often solicits feedback and advice from her young ones. “They don’t want to watch, they want to do,” she says. “So I spend time with them until 8 p.m. I tell them it doesn’t matter if they go to sleep but they have to be in their room. Then I’ll say, ‘How about if I make you a guy? Will you go to bed? Do you want a good guy or a bad guy?’ I don’t feel compromised if someone makes a request – I feel challenged, and that forces me to stretch and grow. And to evolve as a painter makes me a better mom.”

These 3-by-3-inch renderings bring to mind Paul Klee, with their playfulness and scratchy quality. They are made on linoleum tiles that have been painted with oil, acrylic, nail polish, then drawn over with pencil and pen, rubbed, burned, dried on a stove, more graphite… and ultimately polyurethaned. Although small, a great amount of effort goes into each.

The raw material was discovered on one of many road trips Ms. Bliss and her children take “to blow out of the city.” They like to get lost and search for abandoned places to explore. The family passed a building that had burned and Freda said, “Let’s check it out,” recounts her mother. But it had burned so badly, not even the doorknobs were there for the taking. As they walked on the floor, they observed that the linoleum tiles moved. The adhesive had burned and dissolved, but the tiles themselves were like new. They even had a nice ashy-powdery surface so they didn’t need to be gessoed – just a coat of latex house paint.

“We make stuff on the road,” she says. Once, while returning from New Orleans, the family stopped at an abandoned train yard and discovered stacks of metal sheets with worn edges and lots of debris. They used the sheets for faces, then found nuts, bolts, washers and other scrap to add eyes, noses, mouths. The actual creations were left in place, but Ms. Bliss photographed each. It is from many of these whimsical found-object creations that the little tile characters evolved.

Some of the tiles are blanks – they are painted with texture and color and are a contrast to the characters.

When not painting on linoleum or wood, Ms. Bliss paints on photographs. She often shoots film with the lens cap still on, then takes the film to Drug Emporium for processing. She has to explain to the store clerk, “Yes, I know, there is no exposure,” and “Yes, I will pay for it.”

Using the photograph as her canvas, she wets the emulsion and scratches it to get blues, yellows and red, like her own invention of scratchboard. “It’s plastic, so you can be aggressive with a razor,” she says. Then she applies a process similar to that on the linoleum.

A piece of purple felt on her kitchen floor made her think of Pinocchio, so she photographed it and painted a little figure over it in a purple jumpsuit with big black buttons up the front, an Edwardian collar, a dunce cap and a mismatched set of eyes – one is round with a large white part and tiny black pupil; the other is almond-shaped with a large black pupil. “He hasn’t been lying so his nose is caving into his head. He’s been a good little boy,” she says.

“Doralis’ Picnic” is like a satyr, with a realistically painted head of a young girl and cartoon-like body of an animal. The body parts have been numbered, and in the upper left is a hand-scratched key: round, sirloin, flank, rack, breast, picnic.

Under the body are scratched little figures – a mouse-like creature Ms. Bliss says is a home ec teacher, and her stick-figure charges. “She is taking them on a field trip to the grocery story. I have this weird embroidered thing in my kitchen that shows the happy profiles of animals with their bodies divided into meat parts – rump, brisket and ‘the picnic,'” says Ms. Bliss, a vegetarian. There is a chicken off in one corner, asking “Which way is the beach?” The animal itself looks stiff, like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car.

There are several self-portraits in the show: some are realistic, but some are psychological fantasies. In “Mine,” a cartoon-like figure appears with a sword. In the background are a pig’s body and a severed wolf head. “It’s a good guy-bad guy thing swallowing me up from behind. I was going to take him out with a machete. I was going to waste deception to protect my kids. Then I realized the deception was my own, it wasn’t abstract, they bleed because you bleed. It’s a self-destructive living in a lie. What I waste is mine.”

“Chalkboard Boy” is a two-part piece: the top is a whimsical head on a sheet of linoleum, and below is a line drawing of a figure done with chalk on a chalkboard. On the floor nearby is a box of chalk and erasers. “People often say, when they come to a gallery, ‘Oh, this is so expensive. I could do that.’ Well, have at it!”

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