by Katharine Coldiron
There are 34 pieces of creative writing in The Untold Gaze, a lush art book of paintings by Stephen O’Donnell. Each of the pieces—mostly stories, but a few poems as well—was inspired by one of O’Donnell’s paintings, and each is presented alongside its inspiration. Most if not all of the 34 writers are based in Portland, Oregon, as O’Donnell is.
I expected to absorb and assess this book as a novelty. With contributors like Tom Spanbauer, Whitney Otto, and Lidia Yuknavitch, I was certain the written work would be good. But I suspected O’Donnell’s paintings would act as load-bearing supports for the work, and thus I’d have to lower the bar for actual enjoyment. I was wrong. The Untold Gazeis a successful experiment in blending creative writing and visual art, more graceful and more memorable than any similar endeavors I’ve known.
As far as I can tell, ekphrastic art is always a little fraught. The talents of the artist and the writer have to match reasonably well, or the audience wonders why a good writer is obsessed with a bad painting or a bad writer felt the urge to write about a good painting. Fandom can creep uncomfortably into the writer’s rendering; enthusiasm reads well, but gushing gets awkward. There also seem to be a handful of unwritten rules about ekphrastic artworks that I wasn’t aware of when I wrote my own, a novella after a music album. When I told people about it, they said they’d never heard of any ekphrastic project that wasn’t a poem about a painting.
That didn’t stop me, and it didn’t stop O’Donnell. Very little seems to have stopped O’Donnell from expressing himself exactly as he means to. His paintings are profoundly, delightfully queer. Most of them are realistic portraits of himself dressed up in Regency-era wigs and gowns, sometimes as figures like Aphrodite and Hera, but sometimes as unidentified, feminine grandes dames. O’Donnell’s face is his primary subject, and a common expression in these paintings is disdain, as if he—or these women—or both—find the world wanting. The titles tend to be in French (Plus féroce que ce qu’on pourrait croire, Une petite pause), and animals often populate them: birds, monkeys, squirrels, a dog or two. He includes a series of paintings of animals holding or gnawing on precious jewels, jokes in their titles (Acorn for a squirrel with a Faberge egg, Worm for a robin with a string of pearls).
The artistic project here seems akin to that of Cindy Sherman, except where Sherman ranges all over the place, O’Donnell’s paintings meditate on a fairly consistent identity. I’ll admit that I don’t really understand Cindy Sherman, what she’s getting at, and that might be why I don’t really understand O’Donnell, either. His work is humorous and beautifully detailed, and his expertise at light and shadow is breathtaking. But to return over and over again to the same general identity—eighteenth-century European women in absurd wigs—means the identity loops in with his artistic purpose. Whatever that may be, I’m missing it. Mea culpa, probably.
As for the writing that accompanies the paintings—that I feel qualified to speak about. The writers’ work is pleasurably diverse and of unfailingly high quality. I only marked passages in two pieces of the thirty-four, but that’s because they struck me as a reader. Reader-me and reviewer-me are two very different selves. As a reviewer I despair of writing about thirty-four different writers; singling out a handful makes the others feel they objectively weren’t good enough, which is almost never true in an anthology. Every one of these stories felt like it belonged where it was, and some were so good I read them twice. But writer-me was moved by only a few lines.
From “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Hill: “This tête-à-tête made me think about how people can be divided into the ones who are décor and the ones who are dinner.” That’s a neatly made comparison.
From “Little Mad Angels” by Vanessa Veselka: “Your hem drags because of those ridiculous ball bearings you sewed in. Your heels sound different on the Pergo.” This whole story stands on a tightrope. Veselka’s piece takes place in the modern era, name-checking text messages and maquiladoras, but she’s clearly writing about people wearing the kinds of massive dresses and wigs O’Donnell’s characters wear. The tension of that problem, past and present in the same breath, exists in these two sentences. And it echoes the tension in which O’Donnell traffics: masculine face/body and feminine costume in the same breath.
The issue for a book like this isn’t the particular stories and their quality, but whether they work with the paintings. Whether the attachment of image to paragraph seems forced or unsuitable. In truth, I can’t imagine another ekphrastic project that knits together as dreamily as this one does. I’ve seen photography/poem projects where the connection is weak, or one of the artists had an agenda that the other didn’t share, or one of the artists missed the point made by the other. These stories ask questions that the paintings don’t answer, and vice versa, which increases the reader’s intrigue rather than putting it to bed. It takes about as much time to read each piece as it takes to genuinely absorb a painting, so reading is never a fatiguing experience. Each writer seems to have interpreted the assignment a little differently, but none of them wrote something so distant from the others that it fails to mesh. (Also, no one explicitly didn’t follow the directions, which irritates me when it happens.)
I’ve been wanting to write a review of The Untold Gaze for months, but I had trouble placing the piece. Part of the reason for this is the curse of hybridity: considered anywhere, accepted nowhere. But the main reason is that The Untold Gazeis self-published by O’Donnell and his wife, Gigi Little. I tried to tell editors that the book doesn’t come across as self-published at all, that it’s a lovely, generous object, sized and jacketed like a coffee table book, none of the pictures of a poorer quality than what you’d buy in a museum shop. No luck. Self-published art books are a tough sell, something I’m sure O’Donnell knows better than anyone.
It’s odd, though, that he couldn’t find a publisher for this collection. His paintings are well-made, intriguing, and thematically consistent, perfectly suited for collection in a book. And as popular and well-regarded writers continue to emerge from Portland, people are bound to be interested in a collection like this. In it, the writers have proscribed space to work their magic, and they succeed valiantly.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Rumpus, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com and on Twitter @ferrifrigida.