It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This may or may not be accurate, in part depending on the picture, but also in part depending on the imagination and sensitivities of the viewer. Some images dictate to us the thoughts of their creator or evoke a particular emotional response. Some images tell an entire story or create from within our own psyche a story that we need to tell to ourselves; a bedtime fairy tale for the conscious as told by the subconscious. These stories come to us in vague imaginings or vivid dreams, and settle within the foundation of our personalities, shaping our continual personal and societal growth. Whether it’s the origin of a myth and the archetypes that proliferate throughout numerous countries and cultures or the dreams that we share together of our own fears, fantasies, and aspirations, the image contained within the mind’s eye is perhaps the most powerful and radical in changing us. It is the internal revelation that precedes the external revolution.
“Melora” by Kahn & Selesnick (2013, inkjet print, edition 5, Denver Art Museum acquisition 2015.309, gift of Jennifer Doran and Jim Robischon of the Robischon Gallery and an anonymous patron). The image, beautiful, evocative, and haunting, is also not without a sense of whimsy. And it tells a tale, but what that tale is seems depend entirely on the viewer’s own perspective and preconceptions.
Sometimes you can walk past an image and not really see it. Other times you can walk past an image and see it, but not necessarily see it as it is, or in the case of a work of art, see it as it was intended. Other times still, you walk up to an image and something uncanny happens as you make a connection, simultaneously seeing and processing the image while getting the sense that the minds behind its creation can see you in return. This has been the case for me with the work of a number of photographers, but most recently, it’s the work of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick that has been speaking to me. And I’ve been listening with eyes wide open.
I work in an art museum, and part of my job is to ensure the safety of the visitors and the art, but there’s more to it than just that, because as one of many individuals who roam the galleries, I play an integral role in introducing works of art to the public and thus helping to contextualize in their minds what art is and what it can convey. Many times now I’ve been asked what does this painting mean, or what is the purpose of that modern sculpture, or how was this image created. Occasionally there are clear-cut answers, which usually are the result of having familiarity with an artist’s work or the resources to research the details of their lives, and other times the best I can do is to offer a series of interpretations and let the visitor decide which one resonates with them. When asked about Kahn & Selesnick’s poetic photograph, Melora, I have to stop and ask myself if I am offering the artists’ perspective or my own, but furthermore, I have to question if there is indeed a difference, because with some works of art there is an invitation to explore and interpret the work only from the vantage point of a spectator.
One visitor at the art museum asked if the photograph was a statement on the environment and our collective need to be closer to nature. Is Melora returning to the wild to live in symbiosis with the land and animals? Another asked if there was some mystical meaning and if Melora was a shape-shifter. Is Melora undergoing some symbolic transformation or even a physical metamorphosis? One visitor even asked as to the identity of Melora. Is Melora the deer or the woman? To this last question, the answer is at least a bit more straightforward, because Melora is the name of the model. Artist Melora Kuhn, a friend of Kahn and Selesnick, posed for the photograph and lent her name its title. The photo was taken on her property.
A detail from Kahn & Selesnick’s “Melora”. Here we can see the details of Melora’s hair and her antlers.
As a feminist and a student of both art history and psychology, I look at Melora and I see an archetype, and I see an exploration of femininity. I see a woman wearing fashion of the late Victorian Era, an era of both technological progress and gender repression, of reverence for the ideal of feminine beauty and restrictive social roles where a woman’s innate power was suppressed. The woman moves out of industrialism and into nature, out of the rigid social strata of her time and into a realm of female liberation, and this is most abundantly clear by the antlers on her head. When visitors initially ask me what the image means, the first thing I suggest they look at is her antlers, because neither female elk or deer typically have antlers. Yet here is Melora, a seemingly human woman, striding into a field where a stag stands amidst the tall grass, its gaze meeting hers, and Melora’s antlers are equal to, perhaps even rival to, that of the stag. She appears to me to be a woman who is leaving behind her own world, where she is seen and treated as a subordinate and objectified, and entering into the world of the wild, where she can adopt an independence and a strength that civilization would deny women, and where she can be an equal to her male counterpart. She is seeking gender equity by abandoning the world that has attempted to reduce her to domesticity. This is, of course, just my own interpretation.
A detail from Kahn & Selesnick’s “Melora”. Many viewers at first struggle to find the deer staring back at her.
Interestingly, the reindeer is one of the only species of deer in which the female grows antlers, though not all of them do, because in harsh environments where food sources are scarce, the growing of antlers expends a great deal of energy and nutrients. While the male reindeer uses its antlers to fight other reindeer for social dominance, the female reindeer uses her antlers to move through heavy snows and to fight for food, and while male reindeer shed their antlers in the late Autumn and grow them back in the Spring, the female reindeer retains her antlers through the Winter and sheds them in Spring. This independence and self-reliance can be viewed from an evolutionary angle, and one could discuss biologically how reindeer differ from other bovids, but from a social perspective, this makes reindeer almost eerily familiar. There is something there that we can relate to.
At the time when I first saw Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, I happened to be writing a number of essays on evolving gender roles in society throughout the ages, and during the research phases of these projects, I found myself repeatedly gravitating towards the work of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a celebrated poet, Jungian psychoanalyst, and trauma recovery specialist. Her works, particularly Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, were instrumental in introducing ideas and concepts that informed how I viewed Melora.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ “Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” and “Tales from the Brothers Grimm”.
“Yet even in an oppressive culture, in whichever women the Wild Woman still lives and thrives or even glimmers, there will be “key” questions asked, not only the ones we find useful for insight into ourselves but also ones about our culture. “What stands behind those proscriptions I see in the outer world? What goodness or usefulness of the individual, of the culture, of the earth, of human nature has been killed, or lies dying here?” As these issues are examined, the woman is enabled to act according to her own abilities, according to her own talents. To take the world into one’s arms and to act toward it in a soul-filled and soul-strengthening manner is a powerful act of wildish spirit.
It is for this reason that the wildish nature in women must be preserved—and even, in some instances, guarded with extreme vigilance—so that it is not suddenly abducted and garroted. It is important to feed this instinctive nature, to shelter it, to give it increase, for even in the most restrictive conditions of culture, family, or psyche, there is far less paralysis in women who have remained connected to the deep and wild instinctual nature. Though there be injury if a woman is captured and/or tricked into remaining naive and compliant, there is still left adequate energy to overcome the captor, to evade it, to outrun it, and eventually to sunder and render it for their own constructive use.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The image of a woman in the wild, outrunning predators, outrunning the unwanted attentions and advances of men only to be tricked, recalls the Greek myth of Atalanta. In the tale, a beautiful huntress and priestess, Atalanta, takes a vow of celibacy in the name of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, of the moon, and of virginity. Atalanta was said to have been abandoned by her father, Iasus, left to die on a mountaintop, because her father would accept only a male heir. Like Artemis, Atalanta has sworn off all relationships with men, and she develops into an untamed beauty, self-possessed, strong, and uncompromising. Raised in the wilderness, according to some versions of the myth, by female bears, Atalanta developed a fierce wildness and could live off the land independent of so-called civilization. Other versions of the myth say that she was found by hunters who raised her as they would have raised a boy, teaching her to fend for herself, and to rely on her strength and her mind rather than just her beauty. She was said to challenge men, including the hero Peleus, to wrestling matches and would easily overpower them.
When two centaurs attempted to rape her, she defended not only her body, but her sacred vow to Artemis, and she slew them. In doing so, she gained Artemis’ favour, and she would later serve as her proxy in the legendary hunt for the Calydonian Boar. After King Oeneus forgot to make an offering to Artemis at the time of the harvest sacrifices, Artemis let loose a monstrous boar upon his kingdom, and this boar plagued the local farmers and destroyed the crops. Many of the bravest of heroes and hunters gathered together, even going so far in their hubris to place bets as to whom would succeed in killing the fearsome boar, but none of the men took Atalanta seriously as a contender. No, they either dismissed her altogether or they were outright angered by her mere presence intruding upon their fraternal display of ego, and Atalanta was only at last permitted to accompany them when one of the hunters, the hero Meleager, convinced his fellow men to allow her. He did so only because he lusted after and coveted her. The fact that he was already married was of no relevance in his decision, and Atalanta’s vow of celibacy, no deterrent to his desires. He would ensure that she was present when he killed the boar if only to win her affections. But that was not the way of it, and many of the hunters were brutally killed by the boar, and others fought among themselves and murdered one another, and when few of them remained alive and unscathed, it was not Meleager’s spear that drew the boar’s blood; it was Atalanta’s well-aimed arrow that brought the boar down. The boar, however, still lived and was only incapacitated. Not to be outdone, the conceited Meleager then killed the boar, but instead of giving it as a sacrificial offering to Artemis, as would have been proper, he gifted it to Atalanta instead. Still she would not be won.
Atalanta’s adventures did not end there. After achieving fame during the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, Atalanta and her estranged father were reunited, and as women were viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands throughout much of the ancient world, Iasus was determined to capitalize on her celebrity and marry her off. Her intelligence being no less than her physical prowess, Atalanta set forth a challenge that whomsoever could beat her in a race could have her as his wife, knowing all too well that no man could run as fast as she. However, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, intervened on the behalf of Hippomenes, because Aphrodite felt slighted by Atalanta’s repudiation of love. She gave Hippomenes three golden apples with which he was to distract Atalanta during the race. Each time he passed her, knowing full well that he could not maintain her speed, he would drop one of the golden apples. She managed to surpass him after the first two apples, but when Hippomenes dropped the third and final apple, Atalanta stopped to appraise it and Hippomenes outdistanced her and won the race, becoming her husband.
In viewing Melora, I am also reminded of Frida Kahlo, one of my favourite artists. Kahlo, who in a 1946 self-portrait, depicted herself as a wounded deer with antlers, lived a rich and complex life, and possessed character as rich and complex as her work. Kahlo experienced profound pain throughout her life beginning with a trolley accident in which she was impaled by a rail. Impalement, literally and metaphorically, would become a recurring theme in her work, as would her relationship to nature and animals. In The Wounded Deer, the two themes are united, as Kahlo, realizes herself with both male and female attributes, which has been theorized as representing her masculine and feminine sides as well as her bisexuality. While her face remains stoic, almost reminiscent of the Sphinx or the Mona Lisa, her body is pierced with nine arrows, revealing her anguish.
“The Wounded Deer” by Frida Kahlo (1946, collection of Carolyn Farb).
Frida famously began an affair with muralist Diego Rivera, which lead to their eventual marriage in 1929, but the relationship would prove to be as volatile as it was passionate, and he was incapable of remaining faithful to her. In turn, as a bisexual feminist, defiant, bold, and as desirous as he, she embraced Rivera’s polyamourous lifestyle, taking both men and women as her lovers. Still, Rivera’s affairs left her deeply hurt at times, and often seething, especially when Rivera slept with her younger sister, Cristina. This would inspire Kahlo’s 1937 painting, Memory, the Heart, in which Kahlo depicts herself caught between the Earth representing her family and the sea representing the inconstant Rivera and his many infidelities. Surrounding her, aspects of her personality, including a modern school outfit alluding to her education in European politics and paternal heritage and a traditional dress alluding to her Mexican home and maternal heritage, are strewn about and she is pierced through the chest by an elongated arrow.
“Memory, the Heart” by Frida Kahlo (1937, collection of Michel Petitjean).
Frida Kahlo‘s work is harrowing, sensual, and primal in a way that even if one does not understand the symbols, motifs, and references she utilized, the emotions she was expressing are universal; they are as clear and vibrant as her palette. She was rebelling against pretension and propriety as much as she was against capitalism and sexism. She lived in the moment, in a way counter-intuitively, throwing herself recklessly into her life, allowing herself to be hurt and immersing herself in her pain, channeling that pain back into her work, and then stripping down to her most vulnerable and exquisite self in order to do it all over again.
Which brings me to Amanda Palmer, Amanda fucking Palmer to her fans, who is also a fierce feminist willing to put herself out there again and again, to be hurt, and to lay her life bare for the honesty of her expression. Amanda’s attitude, her modus operandi, and philosophy can be summed up as “in your face vulnerability”. She seeks empowerment through connection, through creativity, through nakedness, through wildness, but above all through vulnerability. She’s the kind of artist who will walk out on stage in the nude, her legs and armpits unshaven, her eyebrows shaved off and then drawn back on, her belly and breasts exposed, and declare to the world, “This is me.” She’s the kind of woman who breastfeeds in public, and when confronted about will reply, without skipping a beat, “I’m a mother.” She’s the kind of writer who will show up to a book signing in her pajamas, put together a makeshift blanket fort, and explain it all by simply saying, “I had the worst flight from L.A..“
The image for Amanda Palmer’s single “Machete”. Photograph by Allan Amato, 2016.
That’s Amanda… fucking… Palmer. When I think of Amanda, I think of the quote below, a quote that embodies a philosophy that I myself have prescribed to for sometime, and which I find all the more refreshing hearing it from someone so undaunted.
“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or less willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgement and criticism.” – Amanda Palmer
It’s coincidental, funny, and just a bit odd to me that when I look at Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, the first person that always came to mind was Amanda Palmer, whose creative output I have admired since I first found out about The Dresden Dolls in the first half of 2003. I look at Melora and what I am reminded of is Amanda’s first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, and how her unique style left such an impression on me. Her aesthetic, an alchemical mixture of Victorian Era fashion, Weimar Era cabaret, Punk and Goth helped to define what has been called Dark Cabaret since the early 2000s.
The cover for Amanda Palmer’s solo album debut, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. Photograph by Kyle Cassidy, 2008. (Note the period dress and the antler…)
When I see Melora, her dress hiked up, marching out into that field, her auburn hair done up in an elegant, but not meticulous bun, and her antlers protruding from her head, I think of Amanda. So, it was surprising and synchronous to me when I was scrolling through Instagram and found that Amanda brought in Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick to do promotional photography and the artwork for her next album. To me, it seems like the perfect fit, bringing Kahn & Selesnick and Amanda together. She has a history of selecting amazing photographers to work with and this time around will be no exception.
In her post, Amanda said, “This record I am about to make in L.A. is without a doubt the most personally intimate/painful/raw record I’ve ever made… my patrons who have been following the trail of demos know what I’m talking about: the songs deal with death, cancer, abortion, miscarriage. I didn’t want to just get glamour shots. I wanted to make meaningful images that match the stories and convey the heaviness of the record. This is why I’m so happy that I met Kahn & Selesnick in upstate New York—they totally get it. I actually started weeping during the shoot a few days ago: I felt so perfectly peaceful and powerful and understood.“
There’s a trend right now, a glorious trend that I wish more people were aware of, of feminist music, raw, intelligent, poetic, danceable, brilliant music by women singers and songwriters (Annie Lennox, Austra, Bat for Lashes, Cyndi Lauper, Florence + the Machine just to name the first that come to mind and the most widely known). I’m glad to see Amanda right there in the midst of it, singing about a woman’s right to choose and her experience having abortions and miscarriages, singing about Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment and assault, singing about Judy Blume and the influence she had on her as a teen and an adult, singing about the loss of her best friend who died of cancer, singing about the challenges and joys of motherhood, and singing about life as we all experience it and can relate to it. This is what the world needs right now to understand itself and to heal. Sometimes you have to go to the wilderness to heal. Sometimes you have to heal to embrace your own wildness. Sometimes you have to enter the wild in order to strip yourself down to its bare, essential, creative self. Sometimes it is only in the wild that you can be free to cry, to laugh, and to sing. And woman of the wild, I hear thee…
Artists’ and Authors’ Website Links:
Kahn & Selesnick’s website (https://kahnselesnick.biz/)
Melora Kuhn’s website (https://melorakuhn.net/)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ website (https://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/)
The Dresden Dolls’ website (https://dresdendolls.com/)
Amanda Palmer’s website (https://amandapalmer.net/)
Recommended Reading List (includes audio books):
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes/ by Edith Hamilton
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings/ by Maya Angelou
Le Féminisme ou la Mort/ by Françoise d’Eaubonne
The Word for the World Is Forest/ by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Creative Fire/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Theatre of the Imagination/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Tales of the Brothers Grimm/ edited, selected, and introduced by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World/ by Charlene Spretnak
The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help/ by Amanda Palmer
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone/ by Brené Brown