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NEW YORK -- Grace Graupe Pillard is having a good time at her latest opening at the Donahue/ Sosinski Gallery in Soho. She has shown at numerous New York galleries since 1972, but this is her first one-person New York show since 1997, also at Donahue/ Sosinski. I have known the artist a long time, but can't get near her, so many friends are saying their hellos. Finally, she is about to come up to me, but she is intercepted by still more friends with cameras.
"Stand in front of the painting!" they ask her, then snap away at a nice photo op: the artist imitating the pose of the figure in the painting. Graupe Pillard, stylishly dressed in black, gladly plays along, but with some embarrassment. The painting features an image of the artist naked.
"That's me. Almost twenty years ago."
Some friends wonder why she places an image of her own naked body in the work. But context is everything.
"It has to do with vulnerability. I'm not just showing off," she laughs. "If you look carefully at the body, you will see a scar. At 39 I had a hysterectomy. I saw it as an invasion of the body. The operation removed what is considered 'female' from me. It also ended my ability to have children, though I was never that keen on the idea anyways. The scar has defined my sexuality ever since."
The inability to have children, Graupe Pillard concedes, has made her imagination dwell increasingly on her parents, and her past. The daughter of a German Jewish architect/ builder, who is deceased, and a mother who still lives in Riverdale, she is also a granddaughter of the Holocaust. Many of her family members were lost in Hitler's war against European Jewry during World War II, including her grandfather and grandmother. Her parents escaped to the Washington Heights section of New York in the late 1930's. Graupe Pillard grew up on those uptown streets, teeming with immigrants in the the 1940's.
"There is a permanent impact of the Holocaust experience on my imagination, and I am never free of it. But I don't do 'Holocaust Art,' I just deal with memories, those happen to be my memories. My most powerful childhood memories relate to the Holocaust and the stories of the murder of many family members. Other very strong childhood memories are related to the movies. When I saw Bobby Driscoll in 'Treasure Island' and June Allyson as Jo in 'Little Women" I wanted to be them. In the Manipulation series I am linking these two influences -- the Holocaust and the movies."
"Popular culture's media--film, TV or photographs--become part of our memory bank and boundaries are erased," Graupe Pillard comments, mulling over how it is that Holocaust memories are triggered by other cultural images.This is clear in Manipulation/Fear, the painting which Graupe Pillard stood in front of, nervously mugging for the cameras. Actually, it's a blunt, direct statement of cultural imprints.
"She is not just vulnerable, because she is naked. The figure is big, bold, Amazonian--her arms are spread and the fingers splayed. She's trying to create a barrier or a protective shield from everything that is around her," says Graupe Pillard. Images of Hitler's storm troopers at a public rally, from a Lend Riefenstahl film, are imprinted on the body. Behind that are painted areas with images of the tattoos' on Robert De Niro's body in the remake of Cape Fear -- the terrors of a faraway place and time are thus brought to American shores and everyday life.
Recently, Graupe Pillard has become efficient with the computer program, PhotoShop, which has transformed her art. Graupe Pillard "manipulates" scanned film images by interweaving them with personal photos. It is a technique that captures the way in which motion pictures influence us in personal ways that go much deeper than the surface entertainment value or the intention of the director or actor.
There are many other classic movies in Graupe Pillard's manipulations. "In Manipulation/Raging I refer to Raging Bull ," says Graupe Pillard, "with a film still of a man being bludgeoned, sweat shooting off his body, the gloved fist prominent. That work also includes stills from West Side Story. As a New Yorker in an ethnically changing neighborhood, I really related." Manipulation/Fear has a clip from Marathon Man -- in particular the memorably gruesome scene where Lawrence Olivier, who plays a Nazi Dentist, is using the drill to torture Dustin Hoffman. "This one frame epitomizes best for me the terror and pain inflicted on a bewildered 'innocent,'" Graupe Pillard comments.
Graupe Pillard admits to still being a movie buff. "I see movies all the time. Sitting in a darkened room, totally lost in movie moments, gives me great comfort. Since childhood, my view of life and the world have been shaped by film. I still go to the movies at least two times a week. No renting of videos for me -- I love to go sit in a dark room with strangers and watch movies when the sun is shining and everyone else is out picnicking, sunbathing or socializing."
Oddly enough, Graupe Pillard also does alot of work out-of-doors. She has something of a second career in public art, which is more cheery and people-oriented. .She is currently working on sculptures for New Jersey Transit's Hoboken 2nd Street Station project, to be completed in 2002, and will finish installing New Jersey Transit's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit System's Garfield Station this year. She also recently finished an installation in the Matawan, NJ Station (1999).
"I'm really a people person, and live in the present. But when I'm in the dark, at the movies, the heightened sense of drama, the expansive screen, makes me more receptive to memories. That's where the Manipulation paintings come from."