How a Fabulist Painting Showed Jenny Fran Davis the Cover of Dykette
On the Magical-Realist Painter John Wilde, Butches and Femmes, and How the Author Saw Herself In An Artwork
The fabulist twentieth-century painter John Wilde (pronounced WILL-dee) was born near Milwaukee in 1919 and died in 2006. Known for his magic realist style, many of his paintings center vegetables, plants, flowers, and animals. In Surprise (1951), a naked redhead woman lounges on a massive banana.
The paintings are about the shapes that different people and objects make together, always coming together in a singular assembly that looks quite different than its individual parts. In Shirley Smelling the Wine Vinegar (1974), a nude woman climbs a life-size bottle of vinegar, legs wrapped around its base, arms clasping its handle and spout.
I’m not a particularly visual person. I don’t notice birds or butterflies in the sky, and I don’t care about the shape of the moon. I have to really like the colors of a painting to spend more than a few moments with it. But the Wilde renderings hit me, though many of them are drawn in muted tones.
I’m materialistic, which is maybe why people clutching their household objects drew me so magnetically. The images came to me, unbidden, in my mind’s eye. My material world floated around me in what the Germans call kopfkino, or inner cinema: I saw people clutching food and animals and objects, all of them holding on tight.
It was remarkable, then, that in my courtship with Tess, the Wilde image he texted me one evening spoke so intensely to me. The image arrived on the screen of my phone with a smug little ping, and the declaration: This is soooo you. We hardly knew each other, and yet, he was absolutely right.
The painting depicts a nude woman, horizontal on the canvas, a brunette with a petulant expression who is trying to straddle a super-sized red cardinal. Because it’s difficult to cuddle a bird, the image is pretty awkward—but her attempt is valiant. I immediately empathized with her attraction to this beefy, wild thing.I also recognized the woman’s naked desire, her refusal to let go. The way she holds on too tight.
I also recognized the woman’s naked desire, her refusal to let go. The way she holds on too tight. But I recognized something in the bird, too. The way he yields to her desperation, accepting her, this human woman, as though she’s something perfectly natural.
Over the course of the next few years, we continued to project our relationship onto the dynamic illustrated in the painting. We were both fond of having roles to play—to diffuse ourselves into archetypes or established images in order to relieve some of the pressure of self-making. To become the girl in the painting was to feel free to insist and control and manipulate; to be the big red bird was to feel free to yield to the girl’s desire.
But it’s a playful painting, too, and a sexy one (she’s naked, the bird is hot, etc.)—and its attitude felt anything but serious. If I was the girl clutching the big red bird, then Tess was the big red bird. That was a fun gender portal, too—to think of yourself as a big sexy cardinal is to transcend into the realm of fantasy.
To yield: to give way to pressure, to crumble, to surrender. This is a special mode of being and a special mode of writing. It got at a concern I’d long considered in my writing: How can the frivolous, or playful, be made serious—but without straightening up? The nude woman’s expression captures something both tough and gentle, as does the cardinal’s blank one, his beak angled down accommodatingly.
I admittedly am someone who thinks a lot—intellectually and aesthetically—about the woman scorned, the woman in pain. I was trying to write a scene in a novel about a furious woman who stalks the perimeter of a performance her boyfriend is doing with another woman, one she thinks is more gorgeous than she.
I based this scene on the account of a woman I know who had a boyfriend who went off to sleep with someone else, and she screamed outside his house all night, wailing at the top of her lungs until he came out to tell her that she was making herself look stupid, that she was keeping him and his new girlfriend awake, and then after that she kept wailing because the point was that she didn’t care about looking stupid, wanted to make her presence known and unbearable.
She was, in some sense, yielding, though she was also incensed and hysterical, and to those things she was yielding, too, disintegrating herself into her performance of anger.
Tess suggested that our image should be on the cover of the book if it got published. Sure, I said. Why not.
The woman/bird painting—like most of Wilde’s work—is about a dynamic: two things in conversation with each other, each yielding to the other. Yes, the nude woman has rendered the bird flightless, holding fast—perhaps too tight—to its feathered body. But why did the bird come so close to her in the first place? And why did he stay?Like a John Wilde painting, it suddenly seemed possible, in my writing, to blow up and compress details, making some huge and others tiny, until you’re left with a singular, incommensurable relation among the book’s components, its characters, its sensibility.
The painting illuminates something ineffable about butch/femme dynamics, as I’ve experienced them: their embrace contains both attraction and ambivalence, moodiness and drama and sexiness and more than a little coyness. McKenzie Wark writes in I’m Very Into You—her collection of correspondence with Kathy Acker that I forced Tess to read in the early days of our relationship—about butch/femme as “the incommensurable relation, the coming together of things that are not the same, in a relation [that] then makes of that assemblage something also singular.”
The shape these two make together is indeed singular, and its components quite incommensurable (at the most obvious level: girl and bird are different species). There’s no common standard of measurement here, and there’s no other world, outside of the world of the painting, that this pairing would or could exist. This attitude toward art-making inspires me.
Like a John Wilde painting, it suddenly seemed possible, in my writing, to blow up and compress details, making some huge and others tiny, until you’re left with a singular, incommensurable relation among the book’s components, its characters, its sensibility. This, to me, is a writer’s worldview—her voice, her style.
It’s fun to manipulate the world. It’s fun to zoom in and out at will. It’s fun to look. And it’s fun to look away. In my novel, I described the attitude of the dykette as “containing both the butch’s gaze and the femme’s stare.” Writing—all art-making—is, on a certain level, about staring, about regarding the world. So is being human. I like that in Wilde’s painting, the girl and the bird aren’t looking at each other. They are, though, gazing out in the same direction.
Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis is available via Holt.