Today is World Mental Health Day and the last day of National Mental Health Week. Admittedly, such events always make me think of Tom Lehrer’s song, National Brotherhood Week – “Step up and shake the hand of someone you can’t stand…” and so on. The singer notes in his introduction that Malcolm X was killed on the first day of that week in 1965.
Cynicism aside, the idea behind such special days or weeks is to raise public awareness of an important but neglected issue. “Brotherhood” would never make the grade nowadays, being far too abstract – and gendered to boot. Mental health is a different proposition.
Anyone who has ever suffered anxiety, depression or phobia, has negotiated a mental health issue. This means just about everyone. Yet there is still a social stigma associated with mental health, which is not a subject we like to think or talk about. Chronic sufferers tend to be institutionalised and forgotten.
The negative perceptions have been fuelled by comments such as former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s glib lines about “lifters and leaners”, which divided society neatly into productive and non-productive members. In such a world-view there is no room for those whose productivity is curtailed by illness or disability. They simply become a drain on the system.
There are climate change deniers, and those who believe depression is merely a form of malingering, but it’s harder to deny the reality of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia which gradually destroy the mind, taking away a sufferer’s memories and personality. It must be a terrifying feeling to realise you are on a slow descent into darkness with no way of stopping the process. It’s also traumatic for a patient’s family, who watch loved ones being turned into empty shells. The burden of being a carer becomes ever greater until it can’t be managed, but to put a husband or wife or parent into a home feels like a betrayal.
I’ve had occasion to think about this recently, having found that an old friend has been diagnosed with dementia and gone into a decline. One of the worst parts of the story was the search for an adequate nursing home, as most of these places appeared to treat the patients like objects, or infants. It’s inevitable that looking after severely afflicted people will deaden one’s sensitivities, but to the outsider the standard professional attitudes can seem merely callous.
This is all by way of preamble to an unusual exhibition at the Mosman Art Gallery. An Unending Shadow: Works exploring dementia by Ann and Sophie Cape, is not designed to be a crowd-pleaser. Mother and daughter are both wellknown artists, both intimately familiar with the effects of the illness. Ann’s husband and Sophie’s father, Bill Cape, has frontotemporal dementia, otherwise known as Pick’s Disease. The Capes have been through all the predictable emotional traumas – the grief, anger, frustration and grim resignation. It’s a day-to-day problem that never settles.
The show is no less a display of mixed emotions, with Ann deciding to paint portraits of dementia sufferers she visited in nursing homes, while Sophie concentrated on her father’s predicament. Ann’s approach is externalised, based on keen observation and delineation of character; Sophie’s work is fiercely internalised, a search for abstract equivalents of the feelings associated with the condition.
Despite the radical differences in their painting styles the same loose, expressive line recurs in both mother and daughter’s work. In A shiny bone under a heavy light, Sophie draws tremulous lines in black charcoal and white chalk, around and through the vague outline of a head. In Ann’s painting, The black dog, a similar play of lines is present, but never dissociated from the figure. She has painted the face and hands with as much care as any picture in the show, but the composition is far from naturalistic, incorporating four overlapping images of her husband.
As we can see from Ann’s other portraits, the recurrent device in these works is to include a ghostly second portrait – hardly more than a line drawing – that hints at the subject’s personality before the onset of the disease.
The two likenesses suggest the current version of the sitter is an entirely different person. The actual transformation is a form of dying, as each person becomes a reduced, muted simulacrum of their former selves.
Despite the unconventional touches in these portraits, Ann remains an artist who needs to work from life, and does not seem comfortable with experimentation. In other portraits, such as Solitude, or The last portrait of my mother, she dispenses with the devices and tries to capture an utterly truthful representation of the sitter. The same goes for her pastel drawings, which are free from artifice, imbued with a directness and sincerity that gets blurred in the more unorthodox pictures.
Sophie is the antithesis of her mother, being a natural risk-taker. She approaches each painting as if it were a expedition on which she expects to get lost, negotiate any number of crises, and fight her way back to civilisation – or at least to the gallery wall.
For Sophie the problem is how to escape from the clutches of chaos and find a way to reintroduce a rudimentary sense of structure, both formal and conceptual. The canvases have an explosive quality, but there is always the danger that excessive ‘sound and fury’ can camouflage an essential emptiness. Her solution is to approach painting as an outpouring of emotion. She says she spent months “in a very dark place” trying to come to terms with her father’s illness, while finding a way to express those feelings on canvas. The outcome is a body of work that tries to imagine “the panic, the fear, the growing fog, the terror, the confuson, the anger, the absolute horror” her father must have felt, combined with her own grief-stricken responses.
It’s impossible to be ‘wrong’ about an emotion, but it’s not easy to be thoroughly convincing. What seems sincere to one viewer will appear histrionic to another. The abstract expressionist approach divides an audience into sceptics and true believers.
Sophie’s trump card is her commitment. She works in an aggressive, energetic manner that pushes conscious decisions to one side. Although she may not be painting and drawing in a trance, she is completely immersed in the moment of creation. At a certain point she may take a canvas outside, exposing it to the elements for a day or two.
Even her choice of materials introduces a random element. A work titled If I thought I was replying to someone who would ever return to this world, this flame would cease flickering, is made from oil, acrylic, tar, charcoal, ink, blood, graphite, rust, bone and steel on canvas.
The most difficult and awkward piece in the exhibition is Echoes through a thousand labyrinths flown, which represents a collaboration between mother and daughter. By all accounts it was a stressful, never-to-be-repeated experience, more a family quarrel than a bonding exercise. Ann began the work in the daytime, laying in the images she felt to be important. Sophie took over after dark, obliterating much of her mother’s efforts. In the final version Ann’s contribution exists as a palimpsest, still dimly visible through Sophie’s scratching and scumbling.
It may or may not be intentional, but the painting probably comes closer to addressing the experience of dementia than any of the solo works. What was once easily recognisable has been obscured by a monstrous black cloud that enters from the top-left-hand corner, pushing into the predominantly white areas on the right-hand side of the picture plane. The entire thrust of the painting is the victory of darkness over light, of obscurity over clarity.
It’s not a pretty picture, but there is nothing beautiful about dementia and the way it takes away everything that constitutes a human identity. There is a therapeutic element to all art, but – with no apologies to Alain de Botton – art has to be more than therapy. The Capes have poured their pain and frustration into Echoes’, but they have not lost control. There are two distinct artistic identities in possession of the canvas, two conflicting attempts to make sense of a pointless, tragic fate.
An Unending Shadow: Works exploring dementia by Ann and Sophie Cape
Mosman Art Gallery, until 29 November
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10th October, 2015