Lora Shelley's nudes, like Lucien Freud's, are more than nude, they are naked. Her subjects are often caught in Maurice Sendack-like fairy-tale-fun-macabre dreams.
"It makes a lot of sense to me," says Lora Shelley of the 'Freud meets Sendack' comparison. "I admire these qualities when they are combined in other artists work (including these two). There is something that really gets me about thinking something is scary and funny at the same time. It's a very exciting feeling."
She is, according to her father, a descendent of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
"My father has told me that Percy is my great great (I'm not sure how many greats) uncle," says Shelley. "I questioned him more about it recently but he doesn't have more information other than that."
Her subjects, so beautiful, are often irredeemably spooky. Muscular bodies in pain. Virtually all eyes are closed, all hands suggestively large.
"This is a way of humanizing the female form, instead of her being seen as the object. Her big hands are capable but they are at rest. Something dark under the surface of things," says Shelley.
But not always. For instance, The Night Visit is the anti-spook ("a beautiful dream dropped by my window"), an affirmative answer to Henri Fuseli's The Nightmare. Or Holding On, in which a girl embraces the blue womb of an Angel's wings. Or Consolation, in which a suffering woman is embraced by one of the few of Shelley's subjects who actually looks at the viewer, as if asking "What to do? What to say? How to speak hope to unspeakable pain?"
Shelley is an admirer of other artists.
"My artist friends are a big influence on me. Artists from the past I look at include Kathe Kollwitz, Gauguin, Hundertwasser, Emil Nolde, Edvard Munch, Klimt and Bonnard. I also like a lot of self-taught work, it can be so expressive with such honesty and no pretensions," says Shelley.
But where is this coming from, this energy blast of life that forces even her subjects' eyes closed, these paint-stories that compel the viewer to look closer, deeper, again and again, like a favorite novel that is no longer a book but a dream in book form, a shape whose solidity in the "real world" is all that prevents the reader from diving in?
"Everywhere," says Shelley. "You'd be surprised. I look inside and out -- including books, movies, songs, experiences, a memory or an event, a dream -- there are so many sources."
No. Not enough. Not enough to explain characters larger than the canvases they, one imagines, can easily step out of. Like literary characters. Like Madame Bovary or Holden Caulfield, larger than the works in which they were born.
One imagines Percy or Mary bursting from the DNA in which they had lain in wait for the perfect hand to make visual the WORD.
"I have read Frankenstein and of course it really appeals to me, I wish I could say I knew more of her work or of Percy's. I will though," says Shelley of great great great (add or take a great or two according to your intuition) Uncle Percy.
What's in a name? This name synonymous with Gothic (Mary) and Romantic (Percy) visions like the one in my living room, the one my wife just HAD TO HAVE.
I gave a poetry reading at the Rosendale Cafe, Rosendale, NY, in August, 2001, as part of the Woodstock Poetry Festival. "How'd I do?" I asked my wife. "What? I'm sorry, I wasn't listening."
She was looking. At a painting by Lora Shelley. Which we ended up buying on the installment plan, our first original work. I don't even know the title of this paint-story depicting a young girl in a green dress in a very old room. She stands before a mirror, but does not look into it, does not admire herself like I admire her daily when I step away from the machine that connects me to the Great World "out there" to study her tiny space and wonder if the Great World is actually smaller than her mind and what's inside it.
Like most of the Shelley girls and women, her eyes are closed. Makes perfect sense to me now, for SHE knows what she looks like. But what thought so intense to grip this girl forever, and call me repeatedly from my desk to get up and watch her not-watching?
It's like that with so many of Lora Shelley's women:
Erika; Medea; Diner Series VI; Ioana; Louisiana absently strumming her guitar (like Percy Shelley's "Constantia Singing" but not singing).
All of these women lost in thought, unimpressed (or unconvinced?) of their own beauty even while Testing the Water, or Going For a Ride, or Thinking Out Loud, or simply looking out the window, like Kathy (who is not really "looking" for even her eyes are nearly closed to the world outside). Or pursuing a Labor of Love with one eye looking away from or perhaps toward labor, love, the viewer. Or "looking" into a Bathroom Mirror, with eyes shut, like the others.
Wide eye-lids, oversized eyelids creating the impression of the "empty" sockets of Greek Statues.
So many looking away, or miming the motions of looking, but with eyes shut, impervious to our importunate intrusions. As if in rebellion against seeing; rebellion against the World; rebellion against THE WORK itself, where, created, they must live the function of form, the artist's artifice.
Quite Platonic actually, quite Shelleyan (the poet was after all, a scholar/translator of Plato), these women, each as stunning and unapproachable as "Mont Blanc," impatient to rid themselves of genius, the creative imperative that yanked them from nothingness against their will and placed them in canvas-worlds of form and beauty. Impatient to be lost in profundity. To escape art's shapes, colors, shadows, and return to the peace and eternity of pure thought.
To misquote and paraphrase Norman Mailer's assertion about William Burroughs, "Lora Shelley is the one artist working today who might conceivably be possessed by genius."