Fearless at the Fringes: DebiLynn Fendley
Circus of the Imaginings Opens December 13
DebiLynn Fendley makes artwork that is profound and existential in theme, and often classical in technique. In person, she is playfully effervescent, a great conversationalist, and inclined to a sardonic sense of humor.
There’s no contradiction between her serious work and her humorous character. Fearlessness lives at the heart of both truly witty and truly creative spirits. Every day, mainstream culture is telling us to see a certain way, agree with the crowd, go along to get along. Creativity and humor require the opposite: speaking the unspoken, ignoring convention, seeing clearly, and making the invisible visible. DebiLynn Fendley accomplishes all these things in her new show, Circus of the Imaginings.
I catch up with DebiLynn as she is installing her work at the Bookstore at Library Square, where it will remain through the end of January. Her work is a powerful presence here with us, laying bare the souls of people in their loneliness and passion. Or, in some cases, laying the people literally bare, with male nudes tasteful enough that they shouldn’t be scandalous after centuries of female nudes in art—yet those men in their intimate moments are still somehow bold and shocking. How often, even today, do women publicly fix their unflinching artistic gazes on the male body?
DebiLynn Fendley is not afraid. She is a member of two subcultures that specialize in flouting convention: biker clubs, and those people who call themselves “the freak community,” because as she puts it, “we look out of place with most people,” set apart by piercings, tattoos, eccentric makeup or hair, and offbeat clothing.
These are the people at the fringes. And being at the fringes can make you fearless.
The mainstream culture, DebiLynn says, doesn’t want to look at these people. So she focuses on bringing them into view and setting them in the middle of an art gallery where they can’t be ignored. But often in her work, she removes the external signs that mark those people as fringe in the ‘real world,’ so that by the removal of those signs she can better reveal the inner truths of their marginalized state.
“What draws you to your models?” I ask.
“They are nontraditional models,” she says. “For example, the model in Being Slipshod, no one would ever pick as a runway model. Even my models who are more traditionally beautiful are not the kind of people who work at being beautiful 24 hours a day. My male models by and large don’t work out at gyms. They come to me looking exactly the way they would look off the street.”
“My female models are even more nontraditional.” She explains that her female models don’t conform to traditional ideas about how much a model should weigh or how old a model should be. “And a lot of them are heavily inked or from one of the two subcultures that I’m a part of.”
DebiLynn finds that the collision of culture and subculture at her art shows is part of the experience. “When the models or their friends show up at the gallery looking the way they normally look, you have to have an interaction. Because you have a typical gallery-going audience in there, and then you have all those people who are not typical gallery-going people. So there has to be a dialogue.”
I tell her that her work reminds me of Flannery O’Connor.
“As a writer she’s one of my top influences,” DebiLynn says. “Someone asked her sometime, ‘Ms. O’Connor, you’re so deeply religious, but your characters are so hideous. Why do you write about these kinds of people?’ And O’Connor said that because real life is so bad, to make your work believable, you have to give the audience something worse, so they will be taken aback and have to confront their own feelings.”
“None of my work is particularly playful,” she says. “It’s all pretty serious, and it confronts the notion of isolation and fear, and subjects that we don’t normally talk about. People want pretty art pieces hanging on their walls, and that’s not to say that my models aren’t pretty—they are. They’re gorgeous, but the subject matter that I confront often is not.”
Just as striking as her subjects are the techniques she uses to create the works. From copper plate photogravure to vintage matte styles, her interest in retro techniques often creates an interesting tension with her existential contemporary subjects.
I comment on the black background in some of her latest pieces (Varying Shades of Black), a choice that gives her charcoal/graphite/chalk works some resonance with Italian Renaissance oil paintings.
She responds with humility about her use of classical technique, despite the clear evidence on the walls that her skill with photorealistic drawing is considerable.
“I tend to be drawn to classical artwork. The artists that I talk to on a daily basis are all atelier-trained, which I was not,” she says. “I realize the handicaps that I have because I was not: their training was far deeper and far better than any of the training that I had. And they’re all very much classicists. Their subject matter might be modern, but the way they handle it is very classical. And realism is making a very strong comeback.”
She goes on with a fascinating explanation of the new popularity among major American collectors of Russian artworks based in classical technique. It’s easy to see why she is an excellent teacher in her work at the Hot Springs Arts and Film Institute.
I only tear myself away because I have to drive to another engagement. The power of truth draws us close, whether the truth is spoken by a witty woman or laid down painstakingly on a zinc plate, through 12 nitric acid baths, as she envisions and prints the truth that we want to see and don’t.
The fearless truths told by DebiLynn Fendley aren’t just for the fringe people. There’s a fringe part of the spirit inside most of us, hidden deep down where we don’t talk about it. And maybe we’re all healthiest when we stop avoiding it and look at the fringes and the freaks straight on, to see what they have to say to us.
See DebiLynn Fendley’s work at the Bookstore at Library Square, with an opening reception on Friday, December 13 from 5-8 p.m. at Second Friday Art Night.
DebiLynn Fendley holds advanced degrees in art and English and a terminal MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Hot Springs Arts and Film Institute as an educator, exhibition curator, film judge, and festival producer.
article by Rosslyn Elliott