Photos courtesy of Erin Stump Projects
Words by Darby Milbrath
In getting to know Jane Corrigan’s paintings in her recent exhibition, Length of Day at Erin Stump Projects, it’s helpful to delineate the four humours of Hippocratic medicine in ancient and medieval times. The humours were based on the balance of what was believed as the four distinct bodily fluids: Blood, Yellow and Black Bile and Plegm. These fluids were thought to determine a person’s physical and mental qualities by the relative proportions in which they were present. The idea that physical conditions affect state of mind led to the use of the word “humour,” meaning a sense of mood or temporary state of mind (first recorded 1520s); and then into the comedic sense we now know, as an amusing quality or funniness (first recorded 1680s).
The following table shows the four humours with their correspondents:
When Jane and I met in her temporary studio in Toronto (she’s based in New York, originally from rural Quebec,) I wasn’t expecting to talk about moisture. But interestingly the etymology of the word ‘humour,’ from the latin word umere meaning “be wet, moist,” or to “become wet,” relates to Jane’s practice of painting wet-on-wet. Alla prima (Italian, meaning at first attempt), is a painting technique used mostly in oil painting, in which layers of wet paint are applied on top of each other. This technique has to be done quickly which is why it is called direct painting or the French term au premier coup (at first stroke).
Jane paints quickly, finishing a painting in one sitting while listening to the fantastical scores of Skyrim. Before approaching a canvas, Jane will “get to know” the girls in her paintings by drawing them in sequential make-believe scenes leading up to the final scene depicted in the painting, a lot like storyboarding. By drawing and painting her characters in various scenes beforehand, Jane feels she can paint with an assuredness that she knows her subjects well enough to capture them in her quick and gestural brushstrokes.
In the studio, Jane showed me binders of drawings she had saved chronologically over many years. Some were messy scratches of ideas, some were detailed drawings, but all were visual notations of thoughts and stories to use for future paintings. I see this lengthy and methodical process as a “warm up,” which relates back to the first humour. Jane is interested in the four humours of the girls in her paintings. She feels genuine concern for the girl she painted smoking: “her Chi is off balance, even though she is centre in the composition like a pillar. She’s probably phlegmatic (cold and moist) but seems to be centred in a warm breezy environment, which is possibly what gives her balance and gravity.”
Her concern lately for the girls is a little more detached and calm, paying less attention to overly fussing and animating the faces as she once did; Jane is more interested in exploring the environment around them: a gentle breeze, stones, medicinal plants, cloud shapes, sun, shade, temperature, time of day, and seasons. She may become interested in portraying the feeling of warm/dry which would set her character on a hot and bright beach, in the mid-summer sun, painted in warm tones. Or perhaps she imagines it is a shaded late afternoon in November, the colours are cool, it is windy and wet. Jane’s paintings capture these fleeting, active moments like blurred snapshots. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Jane is inspired by the symbolic figurative and natural imagery in the Tarot cards—like a Tarot reading, Length of Day weaves together the elements, nature, symbols, and make-believe characters to tell a story.
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