What’s Your Hang-Up? An Arts in Mind Conversation

In a discussion last Saturday, psychologist Gerard Fromm, Ph.D., ABPP, and art critic Ben Greenman analyzed the work of two artists to determine their hang-ups or “poor preoccupations.” The catch was the artists were seated in the audience and had a chance to agree or disagree with the experts. Before the program began, curator Joshua Wolf Shenk spoke of the presentation being a “glorious failure” as opposed to an “inglorious success”; moderator Amanda Stern semi-jokingly predicted the artists’ breakdowns mid-session; and Fromm and Greenman warned their assumptions could be wrong.

Regardless of the presenters’ hang-ups, the presentation got underway with an evaluation of Australian artist Edwina White’s works, A Lone Sailor and Her Most Revealing. Fromm noticed homesickness and nostalgia for childhood, and an element of chance, risk, and exposure in the lives of her characters; an “art [that] thrives in displacement.” He also recognized falling as a theme in White’s art, embodied in the cloth that tenuously hangs in the lone sailor’s hand, or the hose delicately held in Her Most Revealing.


A video presented by White showed ephemeral and playful characters swooping in and out of the frame and elements “coming together and coming apart,” as Fromm phrased it. Upon viewing the video, Greenman thought of pairs of words including “unity vs. disjunction,” “personal vs. collective.” He was drawn in by the plights of the figures, but felt threatened by their direct engagement with the viewer. Stern commented that the cut-outs in the video seem to come from a “Victorian piñata” and that there is a sense of collective history.

White acknowledged that the preoccupations in her work are also her preoccupations. She admitted to her nostalgia and homesickness for Australia, but added that she and her subjects are also “looking to tomorrow.” The tattoo on the lone sailor’s arm presents a narrative of a sailor lost at sea (an analogy for how he is lost in his own mind), and the anchor that symbolizes the stability he needs, White explained. From my own observation, Her Most Revealing is an image of exposure. Our gaze violates her privacy and yet she poignantly discloses her inner psychological drama to us. Like the Lone Sailor, the woman featured has a plight that needs to be resolved. Both figures want empathy from the viewer–they need help.

Of British artist Shantell Martin’s Continuous Line and her trendy Brooklyn bedroom, Fromm commented that the continuity of line reflects “communities and contact” between faces and people. Greenman believed the works testify to the limited places there are for an artist to put down his or her ideas in society. “Leaving a trace” and having “control of the surface” allows Martin to personalize her art. Greenman also saw a “transience of identity” in Martin’s artistic style, through a flow or exchange of ideas and materials between people and communities in her continuous lines. Stern simply heard the phrase, “This is me,” reverberating when looking at Martin’s work.

Like White, Martin also was satisfied with the fixations identified by Fromm and Greenman. She shared the story of her childhood as a half black girl growing up with blond-haired, blue-eyed siblings. She optimistically embraced uniqueness, community, and personalizing her art because she did not feel pressured to fit in–she couldn’t fit in. Earlier, Fromm had commented on the issues of race and “personalization” in Martin’s collaborative stitch work piece with her grandmother Half Black.

Martin also believes her art creates spontaneity where there are “no delays” in the art-making process. As a Visual DJ who’s created pieces during parties and fashion shows in Japan, she intimately involves the audience in her process and embellishes a scene as it is happening. During the performance, she enters a meditative state where the end product is governed by chance and is “all one big mistake.” Oddly enough, she is delighted when a person she’s drawn on walks away and her art is no longer hers.

Are artists crazy? Does an artist’s artwork reveal his or her neuroses? Or does it reflect societal or cultural hang-ups? White and Martin express their emotions and identity honestly in their art and yet they don’t own or define its meaning. They were so unbelievably accepting of interpretations of their work that it seems that we, the viewers, are the ones with the hang-ups! “What’s Your Hang-up?” was presented by the Arts in Mind festival, which is part of braiNY, the citywide celebration of Brain Awareness Week.

–  Amanda Bastone

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