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Elaine Treisman: Autobiography of Emotion
As anyone who appreciates contemporary art can tell you, too much of it is enamored with being clever, with cerebral showmanship, with self-conscious machinations that feed on themselves and feats of masturbatory formulation. With a now exhausted regularity compositions mount and dismount, pose and decompose, to posit themes which, ultimately, devolve into compositional jargon and incoherency. It's almost as if in the final stages of an orgiastic solipsism contemporary artists have forgotten what and how to paint, having adopted a pretentious intellectual high-mindedness which privileges ideas over feelings, movements over individuals, and the exalted over the ordinary.

What's left-human life as it is really lived--with its attendant love, hope, doubt, and other felt emotions-is often ignored or labeled sentimental, as in weakly emotional. But what is really wrong with sentiment and sentimentality? Are emotions, even weak ones, necessarily and inherently unworthy of examination?

Elaine Treisman doesn't seem to think so. Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1934 and trained in fine art at the University of Michigan and then at Wayne State University, Ms. Treisman, sculptor, writer, illustrator, and especially painter, has spent a life-time examining those aspects of ourselves I think we most readily identify as being simply and wholly human.

In her earliest work, oils painted in 1974-6, we see her interest in the self-in the nude self, the reproductive self, the domestic self, the social self. Collectively, her work speaks quite serially to the moments and people in her life-themes she returns to again and again, always seeking to unlock, discover, explore, and articulate. In Two Nudes (1974) and Nude #2 (1976), we can see Treisman's comfort with the unadorned female form. Her nudes are languid, plain, almost dour.

It isn't until mid-life that Treisman depicts her most powerful images of the female form. Couple Embracing (1987), Pastoral (1989), Romantic Moment (1993), and Love #2 (1995) all depict subjects experiencing moments of female longing and desire. And yet this desire is fully contextualized by previous and later works depicting traditional and domestic relationships, such that its expression appears simultaneously urgent and requited. The images speak of connection and fulfillment rather than isolation and ache.

Connection and fulfillment-these are the dominant themes shaping Treisman's catalogue raisonné. Her life's narrative is full of family, homes, friends, flower gardens, music, fruit, children, grandchildren, memories, and moments, all of them made more poignant, more important, more valuable because they are transitory and fleeting.

And yet Treisman is entirely honest with and about herself. Amid the letters and coffee cups, the dinners and dances, is evidence of discord and disappointment. In Abstract Family #3 (1988), Abstract in Red (1994), and many other of her mature works, Treisman speaks of the process of defamiliarization and alienation which naturally accompanies the passage of years spent having to identify and re-identify oneself and those with whom one lives. Life is flux, after all, and Treisman depicts it with candor, courage, and, ultimately, acceptance and satisfaction.

Obviously, subjects such as these aren't readily objective; they don't boil down easily or blow up wildly into intellectual upheaval. I find them all the more valuable for that very reason. In Treisman's works we have a life depicted as it was lived-in tranquility and turmoil, in beauty and faith.

John A. Haslem, Jr. Ph.D