Sigler pours passion and pain into work

January 13, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Birds cross a sky streaked with pink in Hollis Sigler's painting "The Earth Grows Languid," and in the center of the sky a bed floats above the landscape. As usual in Sigler's work, there's writing around the frame. It says, "The earth grows languid, weak and the breeze still warm from far away beds, comes to soften the ocean finally subdued. Here is the night of love so long promised."

It's a quote from Renee Vivien, an American poet who lived in Paris at the turn of the century, and its message of love and lovemaking are the subject of Sigler's new series of paintings and drawings, called "In the Palace of Passion."

"I wanted to deal with the mystery of love, a world of endless desire, a happy quality of life," says Sigler, in Baltimore from her home near Chicago for the opening of her show at the Steven Scott Gallery.

Concentrating on "a happy quality of life" is a welcome change from the series Sigler has worked on for more than two years, and the burden she has lived with every day for the last nine and a half years -- cancer.

Sigler was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 1985, when she was 37, and has been battling it since. It has returned and returned until now it's in her bones, incurable. But for now she can still work, still travel.

Six years after she was first diagnosed, the cancer surfaced in her work, in a series of paintings she calls collectively "The Breast Cancer Journal." Before that, she says, "the cancer was there but not overtly, because I wanted to have a wider appeal. Not everybody experiences cancer, but everybody experiences crises.

"But when I was told that it had metastasized to the bones -- the fourth stage, for which there is no cure -- my response was I thought I should put it in the work," she continues. "I was encountering more and more people who had the same experience, and I wanted to make the voice a little more public, to make something good out of a situation that was not good."

Sigler's "faux naive" style, which at first looks childlike but is highly sophisticated, makes her work accessible and not threatening, even when her subject matter could be frightening.

There is something for everybody in her art. You don't have to have cancer to learn from "The Breast Cancer Journal" that the idea we have control over our lives is a myth. And while the specific love that Sigler speaks of in the "Passion" series is lesbian, you don't have to be lesbian to identify with the message.

"Love can take us out of the everyday and make us feel exotic," says Sigler.

In the series of six drawings collectively titled "Union," we see a table laid for a party and couples dancing while fireworks explode outside. The top two drawings show a dressing room and a bedroom, but unoccupied -- much is left understood rather than shown in these works.

It's easy to put oneself into them, for the message of love is universal. "I am more than yours, I am you," Sigler writes around one of the "Union" drawings. "And what could you love that I don't also? And what could you think that I don't also?"

The appearance of the "Passion" series doesn't signal the end of the cancer series. "I am going back to 'The Breast Cancer Journal,' " she says. "I base my work on what's going on in my life, and dealing with death is part of that."

Love and death. You can't get much more universal than that.


What: "Hollis Sigler: In the Palace of Passion"

Where: The Steven Scott Gallery, 515 North Charles St.

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Feb. 25

Call: (410) 752-6218

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