Silvia Poloto: mad rose of the winds by Terri Cohn

May my story be beautiful and unwind like a long thread…,” she recites as she begins her story.  A story that stays inexhaustible within its own limits.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other (Stills from I-C)

Memories of childhood reverberate throughout adult life, as we reminisce about the past in ongoing attempts to position our experiences in the present.  The fragmented landscapes of memory hold great potential for artists, as a means to unleash the feelings that shape and color their capacity for personal expression and self-invention.  Silvia Poloto’s recent series of mixed media works, rosa louca dos ventos (mad rose of the winds), metaphorically maps key experiences that have shaped her life and world view.  Symbolic and associative, her richly-hued, photo-based paintings epitomize the ways in which joy, pain, suffering, and compassion are personally encoded, and how her  personal stories also signify universal human narratives.

The structure and compositional elements of some of Poloto’s works in this series are reminiscent of shrines or 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings, which were intended as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.  Poloto’s white flower as blood-tinged rose, created with an elegant muted palette and visual lexicon of emblematic elements organized in an irregular framework, is one such example.  Its central hazy black and white photograph of a bride and her attendants, surrounded by a disparate selection of images—a female face with sensuous rouged lips, a standing couple with animal heads, a fragment of a web, and a rose behind bars, juxtaposed with irregularly dotted planes—strongly suggests life’s ephemerality and vanity. This is reinforced by closer scrutiny, which reveals that the bride has been shot in her back; the red rose–a symbol of love and sexuality–is imprisoned; and the heads of the couple are obliterated by scribbles in a second image.  Consistent with the vanitas theme, the frames of this work suggest the passage of time as well as the impermanence of earthly pleasure.  

Underscoring the dark nature of white flower as blood-tinged rose is the fact that aspects of Poloto’s family history are embodied and shrouded within its lexicon of portraits, objects, and abstract elements.  She typically works with this methodology to construct her works, choosing grid structures or separate stacked, adjacent, or layered planes.  While consistent elements populate the works, the key connective ones are the rose, her personal icon, which represents emotion; thorns, chosen to symbolize instinct; and thread, a representation of intellect.  The rose, in its various colors and stages of being, along with the butterfly—which represent birth, death, and transformation–are especially important throughout the three phases of her oeuvre, which correspond with the evolving chapters of Poloto’s life.  

By insisting that we uncover and decode the saga she reveals in her work, Poloto insures that we will ultimately remember it.   Artist and storyteller Maurice Sendak describes this search for the “Other Story” to be a primary motivation in his tales and pictures.  He believes the Other Story—the narrative that is hidden within or held by the picture we see—is what we hold onto and add to the experience art offers.  In Poloto’s case, once we are able to decode the meaning of the individual elements of her artworks—such as the spectral branches of thorns, cascading swoop of thread, and blue rose adjacent to the semi-clothed woman in the torn branch born in the rosebush–we also begin to understand that this piece is a self-portrait of the artist as a fully realized woman, complete with the inherent paradoxes that define human experience.

Poloto’s art is also filmic in structure, with nonlinear sequences that enable individual works to operate like passages from larger narratives. Within the filmic sequences she enacts postures that relate to the subconscious or symbolic frames within which the figure performs, at times almost merging so that everything becomes dreamlike.  This is exemplified in a cry for more than crazy pink—where the young Silvia, dressed in her bridal communion costume is juxtaposed with an ethereal, floating orange slice-like shape and a subsequent sensuous coral band, punctuated below by the imprisoned red rose.  In ashes ashes, we all fall down, she looks back on her life in ways that are reminiscent of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, using a play of repetition and variation which is central to both artists’ experiments in narrative.  Just as Deren’s protagonist steps through disparate terrains in Meshes, Poloto’s characters here exist in filmstrip-like or grid structures that create a surreal perspective.  The young Silvia in ashes ashes stands near the top of a ladder, looking down on her history; with her ancestors far below, their faces obliterated; and a white rose suspended in the liminal space between, the work suggests an “out of body” experience that confronts her fears and desires.  The experience of this and other such works is ultimately contemplative, suggesting transcendence.

A fundamental duality expressed in Poloto’s work is the tension between the hopes and dreams of human fulfillment—closeness, union, love, family, sensuality–and the ultimate potential for earthly loss.  As a woman, she has experienced that full range of experiences and outcomes.  From the abstract aspirations of her nascent self, held in the shelter of optical delusions, and the unfolding landscape of her youth in such works as ring around a rosie, to the fruition of her creative and personal selfhood portrayed in the crazy pink is the crazy pink, a red rose, the cry for more than flower color and inevitable bereavements (the ache, the sorrow, the grief, the tears, the void of the heavens), this corpus also serves as a confessional archive.  As viewers, we are fortunate that she has chosen to open and share the stories that fill her personal library of memories and dreams.  Significantly, Poloto has also chosen to embed her photographs and paintings in resin, sealing both the beautiful and difficult stories by pressing them like flowers, as though to protect them from the raw pain and loss they embody.  The “crazy pink” prevails with intellect and instinct.  Her emotions are held by the powerful human drive to survive and thrive at all costs, something Silvia Poloto consistently achieves with personal dignity and aesthetic grace.