Mimi Hart Silver is an ardent reader of such Southern writers as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, but her life and artwork belong in a novel by Walker Percy, whose particular brand of Southern fiction confronted the abstract questions of existential philosophy alongside the concretely specific questions of how to survive as a human being.
Silver’s drawings on antique or distressed paper make use of Kazimir Malevich’s black square or details of medieval manuscripts as metaphors for human dilemmas. Her paintings feature flayed animals, “field-dressed” or brought home by the hunter for more leisurely dismemberment. These latter works are now on exhibit at Whitespace gallery in Silver’s first solo show, marking the introduction of a potential artistic star.
Silver grew up in a North Carolina coastal town, the daughter of an artist father descended from Southern aristocracy, “with all of the baggage that that implies,” as she recently put it, without elaborating. Afflicted in adolescence with an untreatable, painful genetic disease of the joints and limbs called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, she left high school at 15 and underwent attempted treatment at the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine before moving to New York at age 18.
Once there, she found work with a modeling agency and ended up living a real-life analogue to the Jack Kerouac novels she idolized. Showing a friend her place of residence, she enthused, “Isn’t this great? It’s like living in poverty.” The friend replied, “Mimi, you really are living in poverty. And it’s not great.”
Returning home after four years of adventures of the sort that most of us encounter only in fiction, Silver studied at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and subsequently enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design, planning to pursue a career in fashion design. But it quickly became apparent to her that her real interests lay elsewhere. “Mom,” she declared tearfully in a telephone conversation, “I’m an artist!” — the one thing she had wanted to avoid being. (Yes, it happens in real life, too — this is only one of many moments that make Silver’s biography resemble any number of books we may remember, most of which she hasn’t read.)
Soon enough, her unwanted destiny became the driving force of her existence, as her professor, Montenegro-educated artist Natalija Mijatovic, proclaimed her an honorary Slav for her existential intensity and fusion of emotional contraries. “When you are laughing,” Mijatovic declared admiringly, “you are already about to weep.”
Silver, in turn, began to take painting seriously after being exposed to Mijatovic’s passionately analytical example. Others began to recognize her potential very quickly. A gallery owner from the Hamptons, seeing Silver’s paintings during a SCAD studio visit in 2010, exhibited them immediately on a one-year contract.
In January 2012 Silver transferred from Savannah to the Atlanta branch of SCAD, for the sake of sculpture and the city, and she graduated that spring. She rented a studio at the Goat Farm Arts Center, where she now lives and works, as they say, and where she briefly collaborated with Sarah Flinn and Nikki Starz on a small gallery called Shoebox Productions.
Atlanta gallerist Susan Bridges saw Silver’s drawings at Shoebox last September and instantly recognized the potential of an artist whom she regards as a major talent. A subsequent studio visit confirmed that intuition, and a contract for a June-July 2013 exhibition at Bridges’ Whitespace gallery soon followed.
“The work at Shoebox was so simple, but it had a real depth to it,” Bridges says. “Mimi has remarkable depth for one so young.”
On a recent visit to Silver’s studio, the prominent display of an ancient Leonard Cohen LP record came as no surprise, any more than the Faulkner and O’Connor titles on her nightstand or her declaration of fondness for artists Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer and Francis Bacon as sources of inspiration. Silver’s exhaustion from lack of sleep (she was preparing for her Whitespace opening) also seemed in character for someone so simultaneously committed to her artmaking and to discovering what, as they say, we are doing here, in all the possible meanings of the latter phrase.
I have repeatedly used the annoying parenthetical aside “as they say,” with one painfully overused phrase or another, as a way of highlighting the extent to which so many aspects of Silver’s life are parallel to situations we encounter as standard plot devices in fiction but seldom find in actual lives. As noted earlier, if Silver weren’t a real person, only someone like Walker Percy could have invented her.
(It’s easy to imagine Percy, of whom Silver knew almost nothing when I inquired, creating a character who could write, as Silver did in response to my query, “Are we just a bucket of guts at death, or do we have a spirit that lives on? One summer I decided that if I read The Republic and the Bible, I would have a complete understanding of Western belief systems. . . . I never finished either.”)
Silver has put all of her chequered biography to exceptionally good use. As she approaches her 28th birthday in August, she continues to find visual metaphors for the convergence of bodily and spiritual pain — the unease of the body and the unease of the soul, including the question of whether the word “soul” is an appropriate name for the strange depths of inner experience.
In Southern Gothic fiction, this difficult dialogue isn’t spelled out in the abstract terms of philosophy; both in that fiction and in Silver’s art, it’s expressed in blood and guts, and literally so in the case of her paintings of the evisceration of game animals.
In her other works, it is sometimes translated into the mystical symbols of another reality — but is “reality” the right word? — that not even those who have experienced it claim to understand. Silver’s accompanying prose poems do little to shed light on the works’ dark questions. This, too, is the right response to questions that elude formulation almost as much as they elude answers.
This simultaneous confrontation with the body and its discontents and the depths of belief and unbelief are more reminiscent of classic Russian novels than of Southern Gothic fiction, although Silver avers that she has never read Dostoyevsky, apart from “Notes From Underground” late last year. Regardless of what Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man might make of it, it’s fairly certain that his protagonists Myshkin, Raskolnikov or Alyosha and Dmitri Karamazov would feel right at home in a studio where the painted geometry of an art-history angel’s wing sits more or less adjacent to a series of drawings depicting the instruments with which various public figures committed suicide.
Hearing ever more unlikely but almost entirely confirmable anecdotes of meetings with remarkable men and women (during her years as a model in New York, the neo-shamanic apocalypticist Daniel Pinchbeck simply approached her on the street and began spinning tales of his then-forthcoming book on transformations in consciousness), the interviewer is likely to have the sense of having fallen down the rabbit hole first found by Lewis Carroll. But in the end, it’s the haunting quality of the art that validates the piquant biographical details. After years of quest, Mimi Hart Silver is still at the beginning of her explorations.
Artist talk and closing reception, 5-7 p.m. July 27.