The Specimen Paintings of Ceil Horowitz
By Hannah Star Rogers, guest contributor
Ceil Horowitz is touring me around her organic garden in Colorado Springs, Colorado. With high skies and peaks in the distance, it’s amazing to me that her eyes are focused on the eggshells and tea grounds that make up the compost which is gathered in clumps between long vines that lay over her dirt paths. "I need this garden to do my work," she insists, "it’s part of my studio."
Inside Horowitz’s point about her connection to the world through her garden is made vividly: a large self portrait of her seated right outside the studio walls are angled in a corner ready to be adjusted. "It’s about the colors, see where the blues need to be," Ceil explains gesturing to points around the canvas that include the cucurbits in the lower half of the paintings but also related shades in every quadrant.
She pauses to explain that she built the studio a few years ago, and unlike many studios I have visited and heard design stories about, Horowitz means this literally. She physically constructed the structure she now lives and works in. Her description of this act shows the importance of making decisions for her work area and garden which are now set up to welcome happy accidents and let plants and paintings roam wild. The two spaces are impossible for her to parse.
In the opposite corner of the studio are organized boxes of paintings of insects. Again her garden observations are clear. There is a portrait-like quality to these images that engages the details of the insects species, but also insists on - even honors - their singular lives. The situations of insects pinned in boxes are refined but horrifying. The upside down bodies rendered in Horowitz signature color palette reflect the way her eyes capture light from even these small bodies but also contain a sympathy, an insistence that though inevitable these deaths should signal something mystical about our world being filled with living things.
Horowitz tells me she always knew she was an artist. She trained at Hunter College, studied at the Kansas City Institute of Art, and held an apprenticeship with New York painter Linda Scott. She returns to New York each year to continue her series of paintings on subway musicians, but I am here to see her work for an upcoming show at Sangre de Cristo Art Center called "Exo-Sanctuaries," a project of the Rough Ruby Art Collective, for whom I write poetry. Horowitz shows me deeper into her studio where she is collecting materials for her "Ceil-Skin Coat," a project long in the making which involves maintaining an archive of her hairs collected from hair brushes and fingernail and toenail filings from herself and her loved ones. It explores a difficult time in Horowitz's life when she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Suddenly, basic bodily functions which seemed to annoy other people became sacred markers of life continuing for the artist. Her hair samples are already being woven together against a white paper and hang down in rows. "I am a specimen," Horowitz explains, "I am an example of a human." As a writer about bioart works, this strikes me as precisely in the vein of understanding the self as an example or a body toward which experiments may be directed. For Horowtiz, these interests take the form of works that insist on contemplation from viewers and require contemplation to achieve.
Back in her main studio, a library of paintings unfolds a few at a time. Her entomology paintings excite me the most because it is in them that her incredible personal portrait work meets her observant eye. Horowitz writes: "When deciphering observations of my own actions and my dealings with the world around me I reflect on my interaction with live insects. We are all specimens. Similarities do overlap. I hunted insects, killed them and pinned them into my junior high school bug collection. Years later I saw these adolescents actions in another light where I became the one ruthlessly pinned to my bed with the onset of severe Rheumatoid Arthritis."
Without her careful observations of nature and her garden, it seems unlikely that Horowitz would have reached the height of her paintings powers, drawing together her many self-portraits with her entomology paintings. In them she suggests situations, narratives that are as tender toward insects as they are toward her personal history. In one, she struggles like a beetle on her back: she visualizes her own predicament with humor but also with a kindness that highlights the physical similarities we share with insects. This evokes in the viewer new sympathies for the world around us.
But the painting I cannot forget is that of Horowitz emerging from a cicada’s exo-skeleton. Even in my haste to appear an analytical observer, a sound of astonishment escapes my mouth when she pulls the painting forward. Here Horowitz's mother is helping her emerge from the exuviae. The artists tells me that this painting recounts her mother helping her from a bathtub at an acute stage in her illness. "I am a specimen," Horowitz tells me again.
The tenderness between mother and daughter and the understanding between them which surpasses even the artist’s form as a cicada creates for me a feminist image. The darkness of Kafka’s insect parts falls away to show us that we can see the human-ness in each other and even in nature among beings who we too often dismiss. Ceil Horowitz’s paintings synthesize observations from the natural world and observations from her own inner world, offering viewers a chance to stand under her understanding.