Catherine Angel Photography  
To Embrace
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New Art Examiner
Chicago, Illinois
April 1995

Catherine Angel
S.R.O. Gallery

By Glen R. Brown

The relationship between castration and desire receives a double articulation in the work of Catherine Angel: metaphorically, the work describes a general human predicament in which language is the determinant force; literally, it forms the nucleus of a deep personal tragedy for which art becomes a means toward recovery. Through a series of intimately scaled panels, alternating between collages and mounted pages of text, Angel has recorded the working of a primal human desire for wholeness, for a continuity of experience that is lost through the fragmentizing, politicizing, and engendering (or “disengendering”) action of language. At the same time, and more directly, her work is about a physical fragmentation of the body, the loss of identity this has precipitated, and a desire for healing that has its material expression in an art of selecting and connecting.

Angel, a faculty member at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, has produced a series of 45 collages and panels of text relating to her diagnosis in 1979, at the age of 21, with ovarian cancer. Her subsequent treatment, which culminated in a total hysterectomy, became in her work the starting point for what she has described as a “spiritual journey,” an ongoing process of self-definition that defies the supposed omnipotence of physical laws on the one hand and language on the other. Quoting from Webster’s dictionary, for example, Angel reveals the process through which language arbitrarily determines identity: woman is defined as adult female; female is defined as designating the sex that bares young. In the face of this alienating definition, Angel answers “I am barren, but I am not lacking…I was castrated, I did change, I did become different. I now embrace that difference as my own.

The process of embracing difference, in determinability, and paradoxically finding within it a sense of self is effectively conveyed through Angel’s uses of collage, a continuous process of relating separate entities as parts of a possible whole. Because these parts can be infinitely rearranged, the collage is never absolutely defined: it is always a becoming, rather than a being. In Angel’s work the collaged elements are photographs: color Polaroids, black-and-white contact prints, and fragments of enlargements-taken between 1979 and 1992. Some are self-portraits, others are portraits of Angel’s husband, and some are simply photos of natural subjects such as flowers or tree branches that, in two-dimensional form, look like fine networks of veins. Over the photographs a gray gouache creates texture and patina, a somber veil through which glint sections of gold leaf.

As in Christian manuscript illuminations or Buddhist statuary, the gold leaf carries sacred connotations that are echoed in Angel’s work through suggestions of church facades emerging from collaged portraits and photos of body parts. Angel’s conception of the body as a holy place, however, is less reminiscent of the traditional vision of body as “ temple of the soul” than of the tortured human architecture of Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column. Like Kahlo, Angel is in search of a sense of self to give unity to the fragmented body, both literal and metaphorical, knowing all the while that this sense of self can only be tentative. The power of her work lies precisely in his understanding, a reminder that now wholeness, but desire for wholeness is, after all, the basic human condition.


Art View
Sacramento, California
June 1993

Pieces of A Dream
The Inner Landscapes of Catherine Angel

By Cristina Degennaro

Dedicated to educating the community about the history and aesthetics of the medium, the Sacramento Valley Photographic Art Center, a non-profit organization financed by members and run by volunteers, hosts lectures and demonstrations and mounts exhibits. The center stands out in Sacramento as one of the few organizations showing artists from outside the immediate area allowing Sacramentans to experience unfamiliar work.

A case in point is Catherine Angel, a faculty member at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, since 1991, whose work is presently on view.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the exhibition at the center’s Viewpioint Gallery emphasizes work that actively challenges the bounds of the medium. “Transcriptions,” the title of Angel’s installation, is not a surprising name for a photographic exhibition, but in this case, at least, it provokes some interesting thoughts.

The term “transcription,” of course, refers to the capacity of the medium to record or document reality. Since its invention over 150 years ago by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, photography has maintained its authoritative status as the “transparent medium,” a mirror of reality. In fact, Daguerre, in a self-congratulatory moment, proclaimed that his invention gave nature “the power to reproduce herself.” This belief in the evidential or verisimilar character of the medium still fuels many popular and powerful assumptions. The photograph, it is commonly believed, captures the truth about an instant in time, a fragment in space. Historically, its role has been primarily documentary: We use it to preserve evidence of our otherwise temporal existence, permanently fixing our images to endure both death and time. Which is precisely what Catherine Angel’s exhibition is about: death and time, recording her experience surviving ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 1979 at age 21.

Rather than presenting a series of straightforward documentary photographs, Angel instead presents the “mirror” of her world in a complex and multilayered installation. Comprised of richly worked photomontages, a variety of texts, and stark, sometimes severely cropped black-and-white photographs, the installation encourages one to concentrate upon changes in the relations between images, rather than one single, fixed perspective. The many possibilities for combining images and texts are uniquely pieced together by each viewer, promoting a relativity of vision, rather than one that isolates and decontextualizes the individual elements.

The exhibition subverts the assumed objectivity of the medium by disrupting, transgressing and recomposing the images supplied by the camera. Some are exhibited as straightforward prints, others are cropped sections and details. Many images recur throughout the work: portraits of herself and her husband, an outstretched hand, a picket fence, a flower arrangement, a winter landscape, bits and pieces of Angel’s life. They reappear over and over, often torn, sometimes partially covered with paint or gold leaf in the photomontages. And in this sense, the installation provides a vocabulary of images, each-like words in a sentence-meaning something different depending upon its position and context. “Transcriptions” reminds us that photography, like any other representational practice, is a process of signification, generating meaning internally through structures and relationships within the system as a whole.

The most immediately seductive aspect of the installation are the lush, evocative photomontages. Constructed from fragments of photographs and paper, they are worked and reworked with various mediums including gouache, charcoal, pencil and ink. Somber and melancholy, the layers glow with an aged patina reminiscent of the work of both Joel Peter Witkin and Starn Twins.

Like the work of these artists, Angel transforms the precise and mechanical nature of photography into an artifact that emulates the richness and fragility of a vintage print of early daguerreotypes. There is a sense of uncertainty and decay about this work, a handmade quality not usually associated with photographs. In fact, Angel treats these pieces more as paintings than photographs, the net effect tending toward the de-materialization of both mediums.

Angel physically tears and pastes these fragments together to express an experience she can’t quite capture in a single frame: the tension between presence and absence. As a result, the frames burst wide open, no longer able to contain a unified, coherent picture that once was her life. These photomontages are documents of an inner landscape, slowly emerging from the layered accumulation of emotion and memory.

Angel describes her artistic development: “When I first started in photography, I (was) inspired by Stieglitz, Weston, Gowin. I photographed what was near and dear to me, trying to find answers.” But she soon tired of the confines of the traditional use of the medium and decided to use collage in her work. “For me the putting together of parts to reveal the whole makes sense. I find that I think this way...and so that’s the way I put an image together: this small piece of a photograph from 1976, plus this part of an image from 1990 on top of another from 1985, they meld, relate, conflict, reveal.”

Through its component parts, the installation-itself a large collage-reveals a loosely knit narrative almost too painful and personal to tell. And yet this work transcends the personal to express a human condition common to us all: the transient nature of our existence.

The texts, dispersed throughout the piece, erratically jump between narrative modes and time frames. There are journal entries, dictionary definitions, operative reports, nurse’s notes, quotes from the “Cancer Journal for Physicians”- fragments of Angel’s life from 1979 to the present. Like the collaged images, these words describe a world falling apart, yet tenuously held together: “Self-censorship is a device I use to keep myself safe. To keep myself from feeling what has happened to me. To keep myself safe from feeling the experience of others. To protect. To deny.”

Although we might try, we cannot censor ourselves from feeling the horror of Angeles experience, a young woman dealing with the fact of her own mortality. After she suffered the loss of her womb through a total hysterectomy, we imagine how she struggled, her identity as a woman culturally defined by her capacity to reproduce. One text quotes Webster’s Dictionary: “Pregnant: Carrying an unborn fetus, significant, meaningful.” Another continues, “Sterile: Not capable of reproducing, infertile or unproductive.”

Certainly something has been torn from this woman’s life: her youth, her possibility. Yet Angel is a survivor, her artistic activity part of the healing process, and a way for her to redefine herself. Another text reads: “I am infertile, but I am not devoid. I am sterile, but I am not unproductive. I am barren, but I am not lacking.

The strength of this work is in its capacity to evoke multiple, simultaneous and ambiguous interpretations. It is complex and conflicted, rich in resonances-much like our lives. Rather than using the photographic medium to preserve a mirror image of her existence, Catherine Angel has chosen instead to express her experience of life as change.


Atlanta Papers
February 1995

The Art of Healing
Valencia College

By Anne Barclay Morgan

In this exhibition, all the artists dealt directly with illness or injury, at times life threatening, through their own personal experience. Selected works emphasized healing rather than suffering. In the beautifully designed catalogue co-curator Nancy Jay distinguishes curing an illness from healing, which she defines as “a resolution,” a peaceful state of mind in accepting the circumstances of life.

Lining the gallery walls and exterior corridors were predominantly small–scale works by 23 artists. Several themes were prevalent. Some artists made strikingly direct references to autobiographical data. Certainly the most chilling and intensely moving of these was the work of Nevada Catherine Angel. Deservedly given a dominant space in the gallery, Angel alternated text panels with mixed media collages. Intermingled with the autobiographical statements of June 29, 1979, when ovarian cancer was detected, and, at the age of 21, she was told she would eventually need a hysterectomy, were definitions of “female” from the Webster dictionary that emphasized the childbearing function, as well as discharge summaries from the hospital. Rather than presenting a linear list of events as they occurred, Angel jumps back and forth in time, including her own anxious to a nurse’s recent question about her last her period. Other definitions range from “mother,” “castrate,” to “barren.” It becomes clear from the definitions that the burden of the labels and their meanings are as hard to bear as the physical pain. Symptoms that define menopause are mingled doctor’s reports of her hysterectomy, and even the pathology report. By interweaving the factual with the emotional response, Angel communicates her story most effectively. The ultimate healing for her comes at the end when she states “I am infertile, but I am not devoid…I was castrated, I did change. I did become difference. Now I embrace that difference as my own.