The Ecstasies of Love and Hate: Celeste Dupuy-Spencer's Painterly Transformation

Jess Dorrance & Erin Kimmel

Photo Credit: Max Hetzler

In her recent exhibition, “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand,” the Los Angeles-based painter Celeste Dupuy-Spencer continues her exploration of US culture in a series of figurative canvases that confront religion and whiteness, ecstasy and entanglement, love and hate. Jess Dorrance and Erin Kimmel discuss irreverence, female ejaculation, the weather of anti-Blackness, and the slippery abstraction that goes by the name reality in Dupuy-Spencer’s head-on canvases.

Erin Kimmel: As is often the case with bold expressionistic paintings, the snap-narrative of Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s The Laying of the Hands (Positively Demonic Dynamism) (2018) cracks open with a smack. A gruesome-faced white man reaches toward the viewer as a congregation of bodies infuse him with spiritual light. Shirt open, tie akimbo and head thrown back, a cloud of certain doom billows from his open mouth. One of his eyes remains open, but its gaze is vague. Does it address the teeming swarm of demons wafting in the smoke above him, the preacher with the microphone who beckons and ordains that smoke, the ostensible lady to whom the bejeweled hand laid on his forearm belongs? Or is his gaze directed at the viewer, in my case, a white viewer? Am I that lady? If so, what, exactly, am I doing?

Fig. 1. Through the Laying of the Hands (Positively Demonic Dynamism), 2018. Oil on linen, 48 x 40 inches. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

Jess Dorrance: I'm chuckling because I think we are both those white ladies, Erin, though I hate being called "lady." I agree that the arm is feminized by the giant ring and long red nails, and that Dupuy-Spencer's exhibition is thinking a lot about the feelings and behaviors of white women and queers of all genders. To me, this painting is the most aggressive-or direct-in the exhibition. It's not just that the man's gaze addresses the viewer. As you point out, the pale white arm reaching out at the bottom of the artwork is a theatrical positioning of the viewer within the painting itself. The arm-which is also reminiscent of a Nazi salute-conscripts the body of the viewer into feminized whiteness, regardless of their actual gender and race or whether they want to become part of the crowd or not.

For white viewers, this conscription implies complicity: you are part of the performance on display here. We could also read it as commenting on the whiteness of the art world itself, and as disallowing white viewers from moving around the gallery and imagining themselves as "neutral," non-racialized bodies. It makes me think about how and when whiteness comes into view for white people. What does it mean, however, to conscript non-white viewers into the whiteness at hand? This provocation, which I reckon Dupuy-Spencer must have thought about, is complex. This whitening, I imagine, could feel unwelcome or disturbing. But perhaps it could also feel campy, and therefore easily shoved aside.

EK: At the same time, the arm functions as a distancing mechanism. Unnaturally long, it quite literally puts the viewer at arm’s length from the scene—a pointed critique of the white armchair liberal? Whether we read the arm as a propulsive pushing away or as a compulsory, tentative tap, it leads our gaze straight into the arrangement of titular hands at the heart of the painting. I love these hands. They are painted variously: a series of short, wet brush strokes compose the outstretched palm of the man receiving the light; the still slick but flatly blended hand holding his stomach is contoured by a scratchy, dry outline; the jaundiced, bracing hand of the well-coiffed woman is also contoured by a cartoony outline, but this one is accented with exaggeratedly flat salmon nails. The preacher’s coaxing hand is a greasy, sinewy intermingling of deep purples and maroons. My favorite is the spirited, almost paw-like hand of the preacher on the right, which the artist has animated with swift, sketchy pats and smears of an exuberant dried-blood red.

The variation on display here speaks to the painter’s technical breadth and reminds me of something Willem de Kooning told his friend, the critic Harold Rosenberg, in an interview, “I am an eclectic painter by chance.” Dupuy-Spencer’s receptivity to painting traditions careens across historical styles and movements. As such, an avalanche of diverse historical precedents come to mind when looking at her work—Max Weber, Henry Taylor, George Bellows, Maria Lassnig, Hale Woodruff and Egon Schiele to name a random few—but de Kooning resonates for me as an unlikely brother in arms.

In his statement about being “an eclectic painter by chance,” de Kooning wasn’t defining his methodology or style, but refusing to be defined by either. His was a wayward and lifelong dialogue with the Western figurative tradition, in which the body was unbounded, sensual and tactile matter. He went as far as to say that flesh was the reason oil painting was invented. Dupuy-Spencer shares this fleshy material irreverence: she doesn’t avoid painterly trouble. Rather, in the vibrant, brushy armature of an outstretched palm, she opens it up and leaves it there.

JD: The material impiety you’re referring to and the fact that your favorite hand is almost coming apart while endowing light, or grace, speaks directly to the parenthetical portion of the painting’s title: (Positively Demonic Dynamisms). Dynamism originated with the seventeenth-century philosopher and physicist Gottfried Leibniz who believed that physical motion was based on energy flow and therefore that space was relative instead of absolute. As a metaphysical concept, dynamism has been taken up in a plethora of ways in an array of disciplines.

EK: The Italian Futurists’ adaptation of the concept is probably the most relevant-and damning-conduit through which to understand Dupuy-Spencer’s painting. The 1912 Futurist Manifesto on painting provides shadowy guidance on how to achieve the sensations and aesthetics of speed, movement, violence and change. Dupuy-Spencer’s reference to dynamism confirms one of the core facets of this exhibition: paint as prima materia-primordial energy-in a state of constant transformation.

JD: Transformation is an apt theme to raise in the context of this artwork, which depicts the laying on of hands in the throws of a pulsing crowd. In Christianity, this ritual performs a dramatic spiritual alteration: it is used to ordain ministers, to baptize people, to bless and heal people, to “reconcile” penitents and heretics, and to confirm congregants.

There is an inherent tension to any mass, assembly, or crowd. For “insiders,” those that feel kinship with a congregation, they can be sites of immense power and hope. A place where the individual can exceed herself, melding with the energy of the whole to find greater if unstable and sometimes unknowable potential for action, connection, and transcendence. For “outsiders,” those that feel or are made to feel out of place, a crowd can be a site of fear, of psychic and bodily threat, and of repulsion.

But let’s go back to the arm. No matter how we read this limb, its energy pulls us in. Through the arm, we touch the chosen man, who is in turn touched by others, and we are pulled into the wild, convulsing mass of it all. When I first sat with this painting, it seemed to deliberately teeter on an edge. Is this a benign scene of Christian worshippers or is it somehow more menacing? How I felt about the crowd seemed to depend on my relationship to whiteness and evangelical Christianity.

EK: Formally it reminds me of another one of my favorite de Kooning quotes: “The figure is nothing unless you twist it around like a strange miracle.” Emotionally, it felt immediately ominous-but also complicated-because I had both good and bad childhood experiences in the Southern evangelical church. I know that crowd and I can still sing those songs.

JD: The work became clearer the longer I looked at it. I eventually noticed two ghostly Klansmen, pitched slightly forward and huddled together on a balcony. They watch the crowd from above, one arm is raised up in excitement. To the right, just under the swirling smoke, three Klan hoods peek up from the top edge of the balcony railing. I spotted the notorious red-and-white of a “Make America Great Again” hat jutting out from behind a Barbara Bush look-alike. Here, in this sea of white bodies, Dupuy-Spencer suggests an intimate proximity between all of these symbols. Representations of sociality and white bodies mix with practices of conservative evangelical Christianity that, in turn, mix with MAGA hats and the KKK, suggesting that these phenomena are deeply entangled.

EK: Totally-Dupuy-Spencer presents us with a chaotic surfeit of emblematic signposts that accrue both within and across her canvases. In The Chieftest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2) (2018), for instance, the exhibition’s namesake painting, what at first glance may appear as the detritus of a haphazardly strewn bedroom is quickly revealed to have great symbolic import. Dupuy-Spencer is eating her girlfriend out, and has carefully inserted the trappings of a still life around the couple.

Fig. 2. The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2), 2018. Oil on linen, 105 x 96 inches.
Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

JD: The painting is replete with no less than three cats (the ultimate lesbian signifier?), a half-eaten apple, a dried flower, books, a painting, a tipped over glass, a human skull. Visual puns abound. The skull is at once a memento mori, a nod to la petite mort of cumming, and another kind of “getting head.” There are pussies galore. There is a dangly cat toy that, on first glance, could be a whip. The glass seems to spill water out onto the lush red carpet, suggestive of cumming or squirting.

EK: This work is a sequel to a painting entitled Sarah (2017) that depicts the artist in her underwear, cradled by her girlfriend. It also expands a burgeoning canon of feminist paintings of women getting head and/or lovingly rendered vaginas that includes Mikalene Thomas’s revision of Gustave Courbet’s Origine du monde (1866)-Origin of the Universe I (2012)-and Nicole Eisenman’s It Is So (2014).

JD: This celebratory tradition of paintings of two queers loving takes on biblical proportions in the title of Dupuy-Spencer’s work, which references “Song of Solomon” from the Old Testament: “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand” (5:10). This verse is translated differently in different bibles. While the King James, for instance, uses “white and ruddy,” others substitute “dazzling” for “white.” One literary scholar notes that biblical commentaries today still see in this verse “a prefiguration of Christ’s ministry, at once ‘white,’ fair and pure; but also, ‘ruddy,’ the body bloodied by the cross.” This glossing of the symbolism of “white” is obviously drawing on racist histories that conflate whiteness with lightness and goodness. What does it mean for Dupuy-Spencer to take up such a racially loaded biblical verse, substituting her queer beloved for Christ?

EK: I understand it as a contemporary transfiguration. While Dupuy-Spencer explicitly renders pictures of Christian churches in her exhibition, there are other types of “churches” in these paintings too: the church of queer love, the church of demonic whiteness, the church of familial culture, the church of Al Green, the church of rural matriarchy. The Chieftest of Ten (Sarah 2) brings to mind St. Teresa of Avila who, after being pierced by a burning arrow that represented Christ’s love, experienced physical ecstasy. She was set ablaze with love for the Lord as rendered by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in his famous Baroque sculpture, The Ecstasy of St.Teresa of Avila (1647-52). With her painting, Dupuy-Spencer demonstrates the metamorphosis of ecstasy from one form to another; the ecstasy of God’s love becomes the ecstasy of sexual love.

At the same time, given their physical proximity to paintings like The Laying of the Hands, Dupuy-Spencer’s substitution also suggests that, even at the height of affectionate domesticity and erotic acts, these two lovers cannot depart from their complicity with white power.

JD: For me, these variegated churches indeed share in a sensation of ecstasy, though to radically different ends. In her book Undoing Gender, queer theorist Judith Butler notes that to be ‘ec-static’ means, literally, “to be outside oneself, and this can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside sexual passion, or emotional grief, or political rage.” Her point is that all of these intense feelings are modes of being dispossessed. They break down our senses of autonomy and of being “in control” of ourselves, opening us up to the fact we are all always entangled with one another, given over to one another, and undone by each other. Sometimes we seek this feeling and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it is catharsis and sometimes it is terror.

EK: In this exhibition, Dupuy-Spencer, as you point out, asks us to hold conflicting ‘ec-stasies’ within one shared grammar. This is not an experience meant to be resolvable, but it does ask for a burning appraisal. It asks us to think about how white liberalism and white queer life is related to white evangelicalism, about how whiteness seeks to mend its wounds and sate its pains, how whiteness finds pleasure and what whiteness holds sacred.

JD: In addition to ruminating on what whiteness does, I feel like this exhibition is also asking and laying bare what whiteness is. In To Be Titled (2018), for instance, Dupuy-Spencer reflects on the compositional nature of skin color. In this small drawing, textual descriptions of how to render skin are accompanied by a sketch of a bushy browed, long-faced man in black-and-white garb. Next to the statement, “Color zones of FACE / on any color skins,” Dupuy-Spencer has scratched out the word “color.” To the left are three statements: “Light golden color / Less capillaries”; “Red / (Ears, cheeks, nose) / more capillaries carrying blood + oxygen near surface”; and “Blue-Gray / hair follicals / on whiskered people / or / Blue-Green on everyone / blue deoxygenated blood.”

Fig. 3. To be titled, 2018. Pencil on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

With these statements, Dupuy-Spencer performatively reveals “the outside” of the human subject as a representational phenomenon-and therefore as something that can be interpreted in multiple ways. We could read this drawing, then, as reflecting on the constructed nature of what Frantz Fanon famously dubbed as race’s “epidermal schema”: the belief that race is ineluctably visible and that someone’s skin color (their external surface) says something about their internal “essence.” This schema, he argued, is a central tenet in the making of race. What is it that we think we are seeing when we look at skin? Additionally, if we understand this long-faced man as white, Dupuy-Spencer’s schema draws our attention to the fact that “white” skin is not actually white, but in fact comprised of golds, reds, blues, grays, and greens.

EK: Dupuy-Spencer notes that these principles about colors and capillaries are relevant to “any skin color.” I’m not sure how seriously to take this commentary.

JD: I’m inclined to read it ironically. This nearly conceptual attention to rendering skin color reminds me of Kerry James Marshall, who famously paints Black subjects without using a single drop of white paint (his formula for flesh uses three shades of black). It also makes me think of Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work. In her series The Treatment (2015-17), she drew portraits of 43 prominent white men, picturing their faces through many lustrous layers of black ink from a ballpoint pen. She often draws Black skin through similar complexly textured shaded strands that weave together to form a whole. She has said that she developed this style in part as an investigation into what skin feels like. Given the rest of Dupuy-Spencer’s exhibition, the fact that the artist universalizes her schema for depicting skin across all skin colors seems more like a provocation than anything else. Whiteness, as we know, loves to universalize itself.

In a different To Be Titled painting, Dupuy-Spencer addresses this universalization. The painting depicts the soul singer turned born-again Baptist minister Al Green preaching from the pulpit of his famous Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Behind Green, a line of Black congregants gaze in various directions: some look towards the bishop, some towards the viewer, others have no facial features whatsoever. Behind the singers, a luminous, pale yellow cross extends upwards, framed by a pearly deconstruction of the church’s interior architecture.

Fig. 4. To be titled, 2018. Oil on linen, 40 x 48 inches. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

EK: As with The Laying of the Hands, Dupuy-Spencer explicitly inducts the viewer into spectral whiteness: the viewer is positioned as holding the program which sits at the bottom of the painting. A row of white onlookers that Dupuy-Spencer has sanded down and scratched out form a solemn gossamer front, dividing the white audience from the Black congregants. These onlookers emit both a polite and menacing air. A scarlet red line circumscribes the scene. Painting over the scene and at points painted over, it breaks the immediacy of our voyeuristic position. A scroll through the artist’s Instagram account indicates that she has occupied that space.

JD: The church is apparently a popular pilgrimage site for Al Green fans. In her recent book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe, an English literature and Black studies scholar, describes the anti-Blackness that structures our world as “the weather.” In the afterlife of transatlantic slavery, she writes, anti-Blackness is a “total climate” in which we all live that produces Black life as unfree and Black death as the norm. Though, out of this weather, she argues, Black people also produce “their own ecologies.”

For me, Dupuy-Spencer’s exhibition asks: How do white people live in this climate? How do we produce it? How are we seeking to change it, if at all? How does this climate transform us? How, where, and with whom do we position ourselves within it? Her exhibition presents various pictures of whiteness, each of which has its own tenor, or microclimate. These microclimates are all part of the weather of whiteness, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy.

EK: Yes, weather that goes habitually unacknowledged, at least in many dominant communities. A handful of apocalyptic landscape paintings depicting ominous atmospheres are interspersed between Dupuy-Spencer’s figurative works. They offer a divergent approach to Dupuy-Spencer’s central concerns. The largest and the second of three works in the show titled To Be Titled (2018) portrays an electric implosion of what may have once been a picturesque seascape. Waves chasm and cascade, clouds swirl and eddy, and the trunk of a sturdy tree is made serpentine as sky and earth are pulled down in torrential gusts with the setting sun. Two miniature whales wash up in the toxic seafoam greens of a cresting wave, while two others are pulled down into black water in sinking nosedives. Two more seem suspended inertly as the elemental maelstrom, enhanced by burning colors, fulminates above.

Fig. 5. To be titled, 2018. Oil on linen, 108 x 132 inches. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

In another painting, Don’t Lose Your Lover (2018), a California hillside is on fire as two figures illuminated by the headlights of their broken-down car make out. Nearby a pack of wild animals attempt their own escape, echoing the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark.

Fig. 6. Don't Lose Your Lover, 2018. Oil on linen, 84 x 108 inches.
Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

JD: Dupuy-Spencer’s canvases arise from the situations and circumstances of her surroundings. She is clearly drawing on a great deal of media and documentary imagery but she is also explicit about painting people she loves, whether it’s her girlfriend, women from her childhood, or her uncle who is a country musician. The paintings both surveil and revere the communities she tracks. She highlights connections between Christianity and white power at the same time that she depicts her own search for salvation. Darkness Is Not Dark (Light Shines As Day) (2018), which shows the artist on the verge of a baptism, makes explicit that Dupuy-Spencer has skin in the game here; she’s not seeking to transcend what she critiques.

Fig. 7. Darkness Is Not Dark (Light Shines As Day), 2018. Oil on linen, 65 x 50 inches. 
Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

EK: Speaking of Dupuy-Spencer painting her loved ones, I regard Dutchess County Border (Matriarchs of the 90s Line) (2018) as an oversized devotional painting. Six women whom the artist grew up with are presented frontally in a yellow living room of a cluttered house. Once again, Dupuy-Spencer has lavished the domicile with symbolically loaded objects. A brightly colored floral tablecloth is covered with empty beer cans and wine bottles, cassettes, magazines. A cross-section of the living room ceiling separates the matriarchs from a line of the lower halves of children’s bodies who are sitting cross legged on the floor.

Fig. 8. Dutchess County Border (Matriarchs of the 90’s Line), 2018. Oil on linen, 96 x 120 inches.
Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

JD: It’s true, the planar arrangement of the women and the cross-section of the living room ceiling echoes the configuration of altarpieces and devotional icons. But this isn’t a line of empty vessel Virgin Marys; these cadre of women have been affectionately rendered while smoking, drinking, and generally getting up to no good, and they are distinct from the children above. I want to hang out with these matriarchs! In its queering of conventional domesticity, this painting reminds me of Catherine Opie’s photography, which also warmly queers ideas of home, children, and kinship.

EK: Dutchess County Border, like most of the scenes Dupuy-Spencer offers, is rigidly composed in spite of the heterogeneity of paint style and surface. In this sense, Dupuy-Spencer is also indebted to the meticulous draughtsmanship of her former teacher, Nicole Eisenman, whose large and colorful multi-figure canvases plumb the psychological depths of the human figure through allegory and satire. However, Eisenman’s canvases have a polish that produces smooth estrangement from the psychic and physical snares she presents.

JD: Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings, in contrast, refuse all manner of meditative distance. As a result, there is immediate brutality to a sustained engagement with them. In each painting, the viewer is thrust right into a dilemma that is full of the tension between formal doing and material undoing.

EK: Part of the power and importance of Dupuy-Spencer’s textured, kaleidoscopic paintings is their resistance to the virtual image mall in which we live today. I’m thinking specifically of the crisp, light-drenched lifestyle images of mostly white women, often holding babies, in immaculately rustic interiors replete with the signature speckled artisanal vase brimming with flowers cut from the lush garden peeking through handcrafted windows. This edenic paradise is being sold to upwardly mobile whites, particularly those in the culture industry, right now in Los Angeles, where the artist resides. This image mall is selling a damning edenic dream: have your own slice of pastoral perfection. It’s a gloss over mass displacement and the fact that the landscape is on fire, a phenomenon that Dupuy-Spencer makes explicit in Don’t Lose Your Lover. Dupuy-Spencer’s textured, colorful paintings are anathematic to the visual world we live in—they interrupt any surface clarity through the overwhelming delivery of visual information in various stages of composition and decomposition. They refuse the crisp simplicity of any marketing gestalt.

JD: I live in the Bay Area and have recently observed the horrific and peculiar reality that nothing structural is changing as climate-change induced fires rage around me, hurting the earth and those of us that live in the region. Sometimes, as in Don’t Lose Your Lover, it’s all we can do to grab our friends and lovers and hold them close. And, of course, this reaction is not enough. This conundrum tracks with Diana Nawi’s assertion in the exhibition’s press release that this exhibition is “a record of the deeply felt task of trying to be good in the contradictions of this moment.”

I like this framing of the exhibition because it underscores that the white search for “goodness” is historically fraught and continues to be so. White violence, such as colonialism, is often carried out in the name of “helping the world” through so-called civilizing acts.

EK: We can safely assume that all the white people represented here want to think of themselves as “good people.” Yet the performances of whiteness that Dupuy-Spencer presents are not sympatico with one another. Presumably, the white evangelical Christians don’t love the white queers who fuck adjacent to them and the white queers don’t love the revelry of the white evangelical Christians. What love is for one might be hate for the other. And yet these different traditions of loving and hating are all atmospherically related. As such, Dupuy-Spencer’s large, loud and unruly canvases are an argument against the very rhetoric of “goodness.” Their material irreverence and expressive distortion underscore the contingency of the term, pointing to the impossibility of its absolute reality.

JD: Her paintings offer critical love. They’re not answers but vivid menageries through which to confront the multiple, warring realities of racialized life in the US today.