Walking into Painter, & is like entering a time capsule of an artist’s life. The exhibition is replete with performance documentation, videos, paintings, artist’s books, and a flat file nearly spilling over with works on paper that all give shape to Deborah Boardman’s trajectory as an artist spanning over 30 years in time. The exhibition creates an atmosphere of warmth and vulnerability that invites relaxation and introspection as you read phrases like “everything is connected,” “I hate how insecure I feel,” and “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This last phrase was also the title of her final exhibition that grappled with the artist’s own mortality in light of her stage four breast cancer. Three years following her passing at age 57, this exhibition, curated by Jessica Cochran, is an opportunity to reflect on and illuminate Boardman’s broad artistic practice.
Recurring motifs that run throughout Boardman’s work are the dharma wheel, intricate heraldic shapes often intertwined with flowers, portraits, linear patterns, and the interior space of the artists’ studio. These works in the gallery, many of which give shape to her Catholic origins and interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, also gain second lives when depicted in other paintings, which show them stockpiled in the studio environment. Hung in groupings that further echo their accumulation, visitors are encouraged not to elevate singular works, but to experience her paintings within the worlds that unfold. By giving prominence to the site of production, Boardman points to the liminal space of the studio as an incubator of ideas that move out into the world.
Many of these ideas are offered up for closer analysis through the large display tables and pedestals which allow visitors, if they take the opportunity, to view each and every page of her artist’s books. Humor and a biting self-criticality make their way into the Book of Faults: Some of Yours, Some of Mine an artist book Boardman made with the contributions of students and others at the College of DuPage. In this book a depiction referencing the Noble Eightfold Path of the dharma wheel spokes normally associated with a path to liberation are replaced with the words cancer, anger, compulsive internet, playing the victim, among others. Painted index cards within the book list phrases such as “I procrastinate,” “always afraid I’m not good enough,” and “I hate to wait” although no one person takes ownership of these perceived flaws. Moving towards acknowledging difficulty in her work, notably with the inclusion of others, prevalent throughout her practice are prompts for the viewer to form social bonds by identifying common struggles.
In Oxbow # 2, Mother Praying Boardman depicts an interior scene of a room basked in warm, bright, semi-translucent color. The mother, kneeling at the foot of the bed dissolves into the architecture and the yellow circle surrounding her gesture of grief matches that of the bed covering where no child can be seen. This painting seems to avoid defining borders between people and things as an ethic, creating an opening to consider the interconnected ambitions that occupied this artist’s life and challenging the notion that painting is a traditional, solitary, practice.
Lining the hallway in advance of the exhibition, Boardman’s many projects in the community are given voice. A project from the early 90’s, Mutual Borders, attempted to rescue three different congregations. The Picturing Death Project (2001-03) and Magic Mountain at Bangalore (2012) both confronted mortality and put Boardman in direct contact with the sick and dying. Later projects from 2012-2014, Celebration of the Living Who Reflect Upon Death and The Rhizome Alliance, tied Boardman’s work specifically to spiritual energy in the landscape and sustainability. Throughout all these projects, Boardman was constantly searching for a spiritual connection. A generosity and openness inherent in this work lends a compelling vision to what a painting, & practice can contribute to the world.