Art Betsy 1
By Betsy DiJulio

The well-spring of the creative process is often elusive, even to the maker. And therein lies much of its allure. However, when the artist is also a literary scholar, s/he is perhaps likely to have spent more time than most analyzing from whence it all came…and why…not to mention articulating same.

In a talk given upon the opening of her exhibition “Remainders,” Mourão, a full professor of literature at ODU, articulated three impulses that occupied some three years of this project’s evolution. Long interested in synthesizing her two identities as scholar and artist while giving personal experience and cultural heritage their due, she began this particular interdisciplinary project in response to the receipt of a box of 40 unsold copies of her first published scholarly book, Altered Habits: Reconsidering the Nun in Fiction (Florida UP, 2002). As is customary, the University of Florida Press returned to her these “remaindered” copies left in their warehouse after the book went out of print.

As the project took shape, 1) it came to participate in the dialogue of the book as material object in contemporary art (e.g. Brian Dettmer and Jaqueline Rush Lee); 2) it highlighted the contrast between the “almost unreasonable importance” of a first book in the life of an academic and the lowly status of the physical copies once the book has gone out of print; and 3) more complexly, it allowed Mourão to reiterate and expand the original thesis of her book.

In regard to the materiality of the book, Mourão incorporated and embedded actual parts of it— cover, spine, pages—into virtually all of the 19 pieces in the exhibition. Regarding the book’s relative importance or lack thereof, in an ironic reversal, she notes that by “destroying” it, she participated in its devaluation, yet she simultaneously negated the same by transforming the books into works of art.

Beyond the book’s physicality, is its content: what Mourão calls a new reading of the “contradictions” and “nuances” that lie between and within the stereotypical polarities of nuns’ depictions in fiction. But what it didn’t explore was the spiritual dimensions of nuns, including the mystical, to which Mourão was drawn, especially after being given an exhibition catalogue from a collection of art in Flemish convents from the middle ages to the 17th century.

When writing about the work of an artist who is a literary scholar by trade—Mourão earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Illinois—it is easy to be swept up in words, so thoughtfully chosen and intelligent are her words. But without the artwork, they are meaningless. So, what about the art?

Composed of mixed-media paintings on board—intentionally less sculptural than so much of the work in which books are transformed—along with one installation and one monumental silkscreen (created in collaboration with Clay McGlammory), this body of work has a formal, iconic presence, much of it with strong symmetry evocative of altarpieces and open books concurrently. Strong symmetrical balance is softened by what Mourão refers to as her “aesthetic of dereliction” in which texture, rich color, and found materials play a role in the creation of surfaces that are appealing and evocatively scarred, distressed, eroded, burned, and worn.

In this way, the work is imbued with a sense of history and mystery—as well as metaphor—appropriate for Mourão’s interest in both the 17th and 18th centuries, her own dual-identity, and what she refers to as the “liminal” realm of the nun, suspended between the temporal and spiritual. Passionate about language, she plays visually with the cross-disciplinary meaning of words like “habit,” “vocation,” “devotion,” and “sacrifice.”

Rich neutrals, passionate reds and celestial blues intensify one’s intellectual, emotional, and perhaps even metaphysical responses to her paintings. And they do so especially in contrast to the pure white of the introductory installation, “Vocation.” Here, an unmarked piece of white paper and a shiny silver pen rest atop a stark, spare, and white writing desk and accompanying chair. This piece embodies, really, the essence of this body of work by alluding both to a scholar’s carrel and a nun’s cell, as well as to the power of metaphor. In this case, the latter is the “blank page” as both pure potential and pure terror for writers and artists alike, one loaded with symbolism in Mourão’s native Portuguese literary history. Hanging to the left of the desk is a white tone-on-tone mixed-media panel entitled, “The Blank Page,” which provides a formal and conceptual bridge into the “remainder” of the exhibition.

In some ways, this show is a formal meditation on the aesthetic and conceptual potential of the rectangular format of the book. When asked about this aspect, Mourão reflected, “In the end, I think I could have kept going.” Indeed. It would be a “sin” if this were to be the final chapter.

Remainders by Manuela Mourão
Through December 9
Neil Britton Gallery, Virginia Wesleyan College
1584 Wesleyan Drive, Norfolk, VA
757.455.3257 / www.vwc.edu/the-arts-at-virginia-wesleyan-college/neil-britton-gallery.php