Passionate Attitudes

Zoé Blue M.

October 10–November 21, 2020

In civilization’s ongoing exploration of the human condition, women, by and large, have born the blame for their own spiritual maladies. The word hysteria, an erstwhile clinical term for uncontrollable emotional excess and a predilection for drama, comes from the Greek hystera, or womb, underlining its persistent connotation as a woman-specific problem. In one historic form of gaslighting, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians attributed unpleasant female behavior to a wayward uterus wandering the body—not to a chemical imbalance, nor to post-traumatic stress. In a later instance of patriarchal medical negligence, the 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot set out to document hysteria by coercing the so-called “hysterics” of Paris’s Salpêtrière mental hospital to perform exaggerated, softly pornographic bouts of it for his camera. Exploitative origins notwithstanding, the resulting photographs are remarkably beautiful: nightgown-clad women in their beds, captured in states of rapture, anguish, ecstasy, and delirium. 

Those portraits form the basis of “Passionate Attitudes,” a new solo exhibition by Los Angeles-based, French Japanese-American artist Zoé Blue M., opening at The Gallery @ on October 10. A new suite of the artist’s paintings depict a central female figure adopting Charcot’s patients’ contrived poses—a skyward clenched first, a finger poised to a teary eye—removed here from Charcot’s oversexualization and faulty diagnoses. Stylized in the manga tradition of glossy gigantic eyes and hard, graphic outlines, Blue M.’s paintings approach the subject’s emotionality with tenderness, trading the sterility of the black-and-white hospital bed with the Pop sensibilities of a young girl’s bedroom: a voluminous, color-saturated environment, patterned to emulate traditional Japanese and French textiles detailed with micro-precision. The finer nuances of certain emotional states are expressed through the symbolic language of Manga cartoons; subtle changes in the angle of the eyebrow, the placement of a sweatdrop, or the exact bulge of a vein can distinguish joy from ecstasy or rage. 

Blue M.’s painterly language features in the new video work, “No!,” in which collages of florals and other patterns saturate the backdrops. The costumes and staging were heavily influenced by the forms of Noh theater, the classical Japanese dramatic tradition in which women, amid the throes of hysteria, would commonly transform into demons. Characters wear Blue M.’s riff on Noh theater masks, which, parallel to the reductive exaggeration of Charcot’s portraits, codified both emotional states and entire narrative arcs. The palest Ko-omote mask, for example, denotes the youth and innocence of a young girl, while the wrinkled Fukai is for the matron weathered by the stresses of child-bearing and divorce. The Hannya mask, for the angry woman deserted by her husband, has vampirous teeth and horns, indicators of early-stage demonic transformation. 

Below the slapstick sound effects, rivers of tears, and other manga comedic effects, the underlying sentiment of this work is the internal smoldering of deeply repressed anxieties, and the exhausting and constant performance of dissociating with oneself. In an effort to conceal outward signs of supposed hysteria, Blue M.’s characters hide behind both spiritual and physical masks; the mask is a prison, and one consumes oneself inside. Between Eastern and Western patriarchal traditions, she draws a line that slashes through the neat boxes female emotions have been forced inside, replacing them with a vibrant collage of the complexities of human experience.

Text by Janelle Zara