Emily Halpern

Author: Emily Halpern
Credits: Emily Halpern

My paintings are self-portraits of a dark and quirky inner life. They are grounded in personal mythologies and reflect my psychological state. I mine memories, engage fears and ghosts of the past, and feelings from childhood events. The work is a diary of fragments from dreams, incidents from daily life and internal monologues. The work is drawn from opening the "locked door" of my unconscious to consider the ways in which the major experiences of my adult life-travel, athletics, study and relationships-have influenced me.

The works of Freud and Jung are an entry point and the basis for trusting dreams as the source of images. The work of many artists from Surrealists, German Expressionists and New Imagists helped form my process and bridge polarities of artistic expression such as abstraction and representation, and conscious and unconscious sources of inspiration.
My process begins with the Surrealists' techniques of free association and automatic writing. Paintings become imbued with signs, symbols, abstract shapes and pictures with obscure narratives. The ladders and roller coasters that continually resurface in my work are part of my iconography. They articulate my need to press forward, particularly when I encounter obstacles. My intent is to integrate the physicality of the paint with the content of my work and to invite viewers to be co-conspirators in the story. Instead of making that final mark in a painting or spelling out the whole story, a painter is more engaging when she slips away, leaving gaps for viewers to fill as a springboard for their own imaginations.

Certain images, such as birds, airplanes and ladders, consistently reappear in my paintings. While initially personal, I discovered that these elements are considered archetypal symbols by Jungians. For instance, the bird is imbued with intrinsic qualities and "almost universally seen as a symbol for the soul or anima, as the breadth of the world, or the world soul hidden in matter... In our desire for boundless freedom, we identify ourselves with the flight of birds. In our imagination we transcend the ordinary world by leaving the earth and the weight of the body." The bird is related to ascending or falling, which can indicate a state of psychic elevation, or suggest being out of control and punished. While Freud believed the airplane was related to sexual availability, Jungians see the airplane as representing a means of emancipation and autonomy or as a potential warning sign of danger, like "Phaeton in his out-of-control sun chariot or Icarus with his melting wings". Similarly, the ladder is connected to ascending and descending and while "ordinary and magical, the ladder's specific character evokes the sense of climbing through space, suspension above an abyss and the linking of disparate realms."
My creative spirit reflects external and internal psychological conditions. Art, culture, literature, politics and aesthetic contexts shape my thoughts and thereby, the formal character of my paintings. Personal material, reactions to life, and the surrounding environment are all absorbed and woven into the imagery I produce. Concepts of ascending and descending are intrinsically related to desires of freedom and redemption or a fall from grace and punishment. While I did not choose these images consciously, it is obvious that they relate to each other. As my life changes, I expect my pictorial vocabulary to continue to evolve into an unsolved, yet familiar riddle.