I had the pleasure of visiting Elizabeth Insogna’s studio last month and was able to learn more about the fascinating, complex, and beautiful world within her imagery. –Brandi Twilley
BRANDI: You use a mixture of many different mythologies, symbols, creatures, Gods and Goddesses in your work that you have researched and become intimately familiar with. When you paint them you complicate their stories, mix them, and it becomes personal. Describe the process through which this happens.
LIZ: This is such a good question, and for it, I would like to provide a past context so as better to elucidate the present one. Working directly with imagery as derived from the places that you’ve mentioned above began as more of an intellectual pursuit. Finding myself attracted to a particular subject, I would set out to research, read, absorb, and then paint; though the path’s shape tended to be more circular and in its own time/order!
Supernatural space, and parallel realities have always been of interest. I made a whole body of work, “Psyche’s Reason”, completed in 2010, with a focus on ideas surrounding the afterlife in Greek antiquity, centering on bodies of water representing forgetting as in Lethe and Remembering, as in The Pool of Memory. The last chapter in Plato’s Republic describes the Afterlife in detail, and was part of my focus at the time.
Another body of work that fits this description was completed in 2013, “Tracing the Spirit”, which culminated in a two room installation, based on research done at ARAS (The Archive for Research in Archetypical Symbolism) – for it, I relied on a more expansive and abstract view, tried to imagine what it would be like to literally trace the spirit from the beginning of time through imagery… (an idea I’m still pretty obsessed with). This body of work included portraits of Guardians and Daemons from various constructed religions as well as pagan and earth based magical archetypical symbols, whom I imagined have influenced the human drama through time, and that I choose from intuitive clues. I made portraits of Minerva, Cybele, Kali, Mohammad, Mary, Pan, Spell-breaker, and many others. Interwoven inside the drama, in the other room, were Bellerophon and Pegasus, Ishtar and Anubis as well as many other named and unnamed beings. It occurred to me, in the work, that these deities are perhaps, contrasting each other — fighting so to speak – elsewhere, symbolically, and that this pushes up against our world and creates our own violent, strange and beautiful menagerie.
In addition to the literal research, a couple of years ago, while working with my last completed project, Goddess, Speak, through Fulgur Esoterica, a London based publisher and curator of contemporary art informed by the Occult; I introduced conscious ritual to the work in order to have an alternative space for the symbols to resonate and expand in a broader way. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Jungian process, but having undergone Jungian analysis for 5+ years, I became acquainted with conscious meets unconscious processes such as engaging with active imagination, interactive symbolism in waking and through dreams, dream analysis, and integration of shadow. This kind of weekly (and bi-weekly work) affected the work positively and was a precursor in many ways to this ritual space as it engages with painting.
BRANDI: Tell me about the function of magic in your work.
LIZ: The ritual space functions as a kind of psychic cauldron for my imagery. I borrow from traditional pagan earth based magic, but through queering at the roots it becomes deeply personal, workable, positive. For me it’s a space that purposefully digs toward the hidden, veiled and lost areas for the ever shape-shifting divine feminine which encompasses the whole thing, even the masculine parts.
Largely though, magic is a part of the process of painting, and acknowledgement of it, and placing value on the invisible world is a source of connection in time and space to what my process needs to be in touch with. Working with this space in painting, integrating symbolism from the physical and magical world, allows the grip of the mundane to change into something much more interesting in its ability to traverse the desired territory in engaging, regenerative ways.
BRANDI: How does the world that you have created within your work coexist for you with your everyday life? Do you find parallels?
LIZ: It’s tricky here, but I try to find more overlap by including various rituals in my life. I practice Ashtanga most days of the week, and read the Sutras (preferable before and after) the newspaper. It’s about finding a way to align the spirit with the body in the world and there’s so much that intentionality can do as well as engaging with imagination vertically — especially when the goings on in the world are downers.
BRANDI: The power of nature is a popular narrative in mythology. Are you able to find a connection to nature while living in Brooklyn?
LIZ: Yes, well, there are actually a lot of trees in Brooklyn and parks everywhere which are nice, I usually try to walk near a park on my way to anywhere when I get a chance. We also keep a lot of plants, and have about 200 seedlings growing right now – literally — way too many plants for our little terrace in Brooklyn — so I’ll be giving away plants soon – let me know if you’re interested!
So much of the idea of nature is rooted in metaphor in my painting, but I think of it as a symbolic language that is representative. There’s the wild woods of the unconscious, the goddess in her form/less fluidity like water which meets obstacles the way water meets a rock in a stream. The ocean is a churning dark unconscious space of mystery, feminine, similar to the cosmos above.
BRANDI: You mentioned a very intriguing discovery that you made while researching in the library. You discovered a bearded goddess who you said became bearded when her image began to appear on the back of mirrors. Tell me more about the bearded Goddess. What does the role of research means to you as an artist?
LIZ: Ah yes, the bearded goddess! I’m just going to quote from a paraphrase directly from Goddess, Speak (my project which focused on 10 goddesses through research and ritual):
“Originally, Venus was both transgendered and transpersonal and it wasn’t until quite late (probably the 4th century BC) that she becomes an exclusively female goddess. Some say for example that both Venus and Ishtar have shared roots as bearded Goddesses. Macrobius mentions Venus as a bearded figure wearing a female attire in reference to her statue in Cyprus. In the 3rd century BC, the goddess first appears on an object and that object was a mirror. (The myth of venus, edited by Maria Sframeli, Silvana Editoriale , Arthemisia, 2003) As the mirror in my understanding has had many magical associations throughout time, I think it particularly significant that her image was found here.”
The bearded roots were referenced a few times, in various texts, though mysterious and full of ambiguity. I was going through loads of microfilm without images and found myself really struck by these abstractions. I only allowed my self two full days of research per goddess — and that was definitely not enough time — maybe time to dig into some of the books that have been written about the subject.
I love the aspect of research for the work – but it’s important to keep a balance — I’m not a scholar or academic so it’s not necessary for me to move out of the paradox.
BRANDI: You have an interest in Goddesses and the transfer of power over time from the feminine to the masculine within mythology. How has your work shaped your personal feminism?
LIZ: I suppose it’s in the effort to dig deeper. Some of the surviving stories, the one’s I’m most interested in, evade this transfer, but finding those required quite a lot of digging.
I originally became hooked on the subject of searching out feminist power stories after noticing the lack of a female presence in a way that I could relate within western religion, philosophy and history. Reading Luce Irigaray’s “The Forgetting of Air” in my early 20’s solidified my internal war on the lack of the feminine space of importance represented theoretically in spiritual space.
Even Greek and Roman mythology is steeped within problematic relationships to the feminine — like goddesses being born out of their father’s head (and not out of a vagina) as well as the inherent and rampant rape culture on many nymphs and Demi goddesses.
Even where there’s representation of the feminine — the negative connotations and negative assignment, (with some exceptions) to the feminine in mythology, is interesting – and upsetting, like witches, sirens, mermaids, and dragons — I wondered if it had to do with the repression of the feminine over a long period of time that transformed to the literalness of darkness — take Lilith (most familiar in her role as the first Eve, though she is an aspect of Inanna/Ishtar, known as a wind spirit, eating children and fornicating with wild elemental forces. She was a force to be feared and a living punishment from a masculine god.
Even in the East, the I Ching, an ancient Chinese method of divination, for those that are familiar, assigns the the dark and negative aspect to the feminine principle.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been reading the poems of Enheduanna, the first known author, and she dedicates her intentions pre Sappho to the Goddess Inanna. Her poetry is strong, bright and full of the feminine centric and positive, though able to hold that with the negative together, inside. She also had a hand (controversial) in writing The Descent and Resurrection of Ishtar, the first resurrection myth ever, pre-Christ, representing two female protagonists, one, Inanna, moving through the dark gates of the underworld, taking off another layer of clothing at each gate until she sits fully naked on her sister. In later years writers have linked this story to the idea of the (feminine fallen) soul moving through life, as in Sophia of Gnosis.
For whatever reason, the writings about these are relatively pretty scarce, and other attempts to take a different view on history other then the one currently employed, is met with great opposition; like in the case of the great archeologist Gimbutas, who worked with artifacts from Eastern Europe and proposed their link to egalitarian societies whose structure and values, Goddess based, were beyond what most of us can imagine.
BRANDI: What are your thoughts on color in your work right now? What materials are you excited about these days?
LIZ: Having moved from working primarily in oil over to water based media, I’m finding it’s a whole new world. I’m excited about fluorescent colors whose lightfastness is poor — it makes it feel ever urgent as well as in-sighting the need to incorporate the inevitable changes as part of the process — in that the bright parts will fade — considering that of kind temporality with a symbolic, metaphysical and magical intent. It’s fascinating to me that other favorites of mine, such as the range of interference colors available, have an excellent lightfastness. I find the combination of temporary vs semi-permanent interesting and related to the idea of what gets passed down mythologically speaking and what fades away, looses it’s brilliance, becomes invisible again.
BRANDI: What role do dreams play in the creation of your work? What do you think about Surrealism in the context of your work?
LIZ: Dreams have always been important to me and I have been writing them down forever; it’s a family tradition as well as imbedded in the meaning of our name. It’s only in recent years that dream imagery has made their way into the work. Although this seemingly happened naturally, I acknowledge that having been in Jungian analysis for many years, and dream analysis being a central theme, gave the dream work time and space to rise in importance as a value in my process.
I think Surrealism is one of the most interesting periods of western Art History, as it’s a time when multiple women were able to come out as important figures in art and influence the dialogue within history. It’s a time when Occult values rose with the collective effort to interactively co-exist with invisible forces that counted in the importance of unconscious shadow light forces, and new realities. These feminine forces had only and primarily been acknowledged within a deeper subset of what is collectively feminine in spirituality, shrouded in mystery such as in Gnostic traditions or in India with the Ten Mahavidya’s. (This, though, brings a whole other dimension to the divine feminine that we can discuss another time).
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