The Art of Medicine

by Rachel Pieciak

For the May 2012 Art Hop, art-goers throughout the Kalamazoo area made their way downtown at the opportunity to tour through the 40 studios and art venues that were open to the public. One of these art studios was the studio of Kalamazoo-based artist Cathy Germay.

Cathy Germay received her BFA and graduated with honors from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit in 2005. After graduation Germay returned to Kalamazoo and secured a studio Space at Park Trades Center in downtown Kalamazoo in studio #406. The majority of Germay’s work is done in response to her struggle with illness that required the removal of part of her lung and left the artist to struggle with chronic pain. While dealing with her battles of illness and pain, Germay reflected upon what these experiences taught her about life. In her art she aims to encourage her viewers to explore such experiences of illness and pain triumphantly. Throughout her struggles with illness and pain, Germay has reconciled that these most arduous experiences have helped her reach a new understanding of her mortality and the human condition. Germay, who personally identifies with the struggles of artist Frida Kahlo, often draws inspiration from Kahlo’s surrealistic style. [1]

Germay’s struggles with pain and illness led her towards Frida Kahlo and Kahlo’s struggles with her marriage and conceiving children. Although Germay was attracted to Kahlo’s body of work, her interest was not the thematic content of Kahlo’s images but rather their alluring fantastical and surrealistic style. [2]

Before reading Germay’s biography on her website, I was unaware of the inspiration that she explicitly takes from Kahlo’s body of work. However, looking back to my experience entering her studio space through the hall into the larger studio space, the several small artworks decorated the walls that, in retrospect, are clearly influenced stylistically by the work of Kahlo. Through a stylized combination of similar color palettes and styles of portraiture, not to mention the portraits of Kahlo that Germay includes in some of her pieces, the influence of Kahlo is quite readily evident to the viewer.

Although there were several works in Germay’s studio space that communicated the artistic influence Germay draws from the work of Frida Kahlo , the larger works that were on display in Germay’s studio for the May Art Hop were a slight departure from this stylistic influence. The two large pieces Germay had on display, Spinal Stimulator and The Space Between, take a more political stance on the intersection between the experiences of pain and art.

In Spinal Stimulator, Germay draws inspiration from a previous lung surgery which damaged the left side of her spinal column nerve. The name of the piece draws inspiration from the actual surgical experience of having a spinal stimulator, a small electronic box that administers nerve impulses to help compensate for the nerve damage the artist experienced. The piece combines electrical wiring along with hospital wristbands and x-rays to create a collage of the artist’s experience of the spinal stimulator. The artist wires a small circuit to an x-ray of her spinal column, which alludes to the real surgical insertion. Operation pictures and slits in the canvas that are woven with wiring also allude to the artificial electronics that the artist has had implanted to manage pain and allows the viewer to visually internalize that which has been internalized by the artist. In doing so, the artist allows for her viewers to visualize the post-operative ramifications of the surgery. Through the combination of these elements, the artist visually reproduces the spinal stimulator that was implanted into the artist’s abdomen that helps to manage the outstanding pain from her lung surgery. [3]

Cathy Germay, Spinal Stimulator, Mixed media, photograph by the author

In the studio exhibition, Spinal Stimulator was exhibited next to Germay’s other large work on display, entitled The Space in Between. This artwork addresses the present housing crisis through an exploitation of dark humor. Germay comments on the housing crisis and the current economic situation by creating an artwork that resembles a giant board game, providing a critique of how “A person can be doing everything correctly, however, in this economy, they may still fail. In other words, the odds are mostly against you.” [4]

Cathy Germay, Space in Between, Digital art, 27″ x 40″, photograph by the artist

Whereas Germay’s interest in Kahlo is obvious in her body of work, the large artworks on display in her studio show for the May Art Hop seem to be a departure from her earlier works. Both Spinal Stimulator and The Space Between continue to explore the intersection between art and the artist’s personal struggles. When looking at the larger artworks on display, performance artist Bob Flanagan (1952-1996) comes to mind, in particular, his site-specific installation entitled Visiting Hours (1992-1995). In this installation, Flanagan explores his affliction with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) by transforming the gallery space where the work was installed into a pediatric hospital ward. Throughout his installation, Flanagan exemplifies how the human senses have been reorganized. Flanagan juxtaposes his affliction with CF with his “other malady” – masochism. Through his installation, Flanagan takes his viewers on his journey towards inevitable death. [5] During Visiting Hours, Flanagan used the intersection of art and illness to draw attention to the idea that “crude physicality and its poetry aren’t mutually exclusive.” [6] By creating a social, and interactive installation, Flanagan was able to remind us of the therapeutic capabilities of art.

Bob Flanagan, Visiting Hours, detail, December 1992, Santa Monica Museum of Art, photograph by Sheree Rose

Like Flanagan, Germay explores the intersection of art and illness, and in doing so draws attention to the human condition. Through the exploration of her personal struggle with pain and illness, the artist creates art from crude physicality much in the same way that Flanagan did in his work, Visiting Hours. Through her art, Germay is able to transform the formal elements, such as the electric circuitry, introduced to her body during her various surgeries into formal and conceptual elements of her artworks. In doing so, Germay draws attention to the fragility of humanity and the transformative nature of creative expression.

Notes

[1] Cathy Germay, “About Us,” Cathy Germany-In the Spirit of Frida Kahlo (blog), http://www.artistcathygermay.com/about_us (accessed 6 May 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cathy Germay, e-mail message to the author, 11 May 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Linda S. Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 20-24.

[6] Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose, and Ralph Rugoff, “Visiting Hours,” Grand Street 53, no. (Summer 1995): 65-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007885

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