Letters in the Alphabet of Joy: Ali Cavanaugh's Watercolors

Ali Cavanaugh
Solo exhibit, Mapping an Odyssey
Opening at Robert Lange Studios September 6.
Details at bottom.

Many years ago, my friend Julia -- not you, Julia, another one, all my friends are Julias -- expressed skepticism at the concept of happiness. "Manageable", she thought, was about as good as can be expected. I differed. I said that I had been happy. She asked when. I recalled some occasions as recently as the age of 12. She scoffed and said this didn't count: Any fool can be happy before puberty.

This Julia had somewhat of a point, and happiness for me and many people I know is intimately linked with the textures of childhood. But I disagree to this day with Julia regarding the feasibility of happiness in adulthood. I still believe in it.

Happiness gets short shrift in art. There are two main problems with it. One is a category error. Because happiness flies, people think it is weightless. This compares unfavorably with the manifest massiveness of tragedy. The other problem is that happiness is simply difficult to portray or demonstrate. In art, certain things are easy to pull off and others are hard. Happiness is hard.

For all that, some of the most famous and popular art is happy art, especially in music. The Beatles wrote some very happy songs. My favorites in the happy category are, "Across the Universe," and, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." You, of course, may favor others. Of some interest here is the formal rigor of Beatles music, a characteristic they share with the other great maker of happy music, J.S. Bach. What could be righter with the world than, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," or, "Wachet auf?"

What do we learn from the formal sophistication of Bach and the Beatles and our sense of laughing rightness in the experience of their work? I think it is this -- that their brand of happiness is built up from a substrate of reason, of a very profoundly felt revelation that the universe is a universe of sense and order and that we humans are up to the task of comprehending this sense and finding that we have a place in it and thus are made not only for celebrating the glory of things, but contributing to it too. This intuition of brightly colored, decipherable promise is natural to children and persists into adulthood when luck and force of will play their parts.

All this helps to explain the difficulty with depicting happiness, or at least this kind of happiness, in art. Not only is it a rare emotion, but the sensibility to support it is intellectually and aesthetically demanding. This brings us to Ali Cavanaugh and her watercolors.

Cavanaugh has spent years painstakingly compiling the visual components of happiness, much as the composers of happy music have sought ratios and structures to express their vision. Most of the tools Cavanaugh discovered are on view in the work she has made for her solo exhibit at Robert Lange Studios. Let me lead you through a few of these letters in her alphabet of joy:

"Summer," Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x 20," watercolor on clay, 2013


Here we have blue skies and angled sunlight. Human beings take joy in seeing and these weather conditions promote clarity of sight. Everything stands out sharply. We have an impression of great contrast, and yet deep darkness cannot be found. Everything seems to swim in light. Colors are vivid, edges are crisp, the forms of all things are distinct. I should point out here that Cavanaugh has innovated a technique of painting her watercolors onto specially prepared clay surfaces. This is not so unusual in art -- silverpoint is often done on clay as well. The clay allows her to maintain both sharpness and luminosity. It makes her watercolors glow like stained glass.

"Press On," Ali Cavanaugh, 15"x22," watercolor on clay, 2013


Here Cavanaugh explores another visual counterpart and promoter of happiness: wind in long hair. There are a few things about wind in long hair which we are virtually hardwired to respond to with happiness: 1. We enjoy the touch on our skin of wind, of a strength sufficient to cause the curves Cavanaugh shows. It is not an over-strong wind, but a refreshing one. It has risen suddenly, a welcome surprise. 2. We like the invisible to be made visible. It augments our sense of sense, that things can be understood. The hair embodies the wind in a visible medium. 3. The hair in the wind is an instance of visualized nonlinear dynamics. We are programmed to be delighted by visualized nonlinear dynamics. Just try stirring a little cream into your coffee. 4. These curves in the hair are in themselves beautiful curves. They partake of formal beauty. Formal beauty makes us happy. Art nouveau gets a lot of mileage out of this little quirk in our brains. 5. Hair that can take on such curves is healthy hair -- young hair. We want to touch this hair and we are gladdened at the sight of a person who has such hair.


"Transfiguration II," Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38," watercolor on clay, 2013


In general, Cavanaugh's subjects are slim-limbed young women with their faces obscured or turned away from the viewer. Here too, the "of course"-ness of happiness takes over: Of course Cavanaugh would take young women as her subject, and of course she would hide their faces. They are as prone to flight as shore-birds. They embody health and vigor. Cavanaugh's chaste eye invites us to be cheered by her figures and to identify with them.

"Attempt," Ali Cavanaugh, 11"x14," watercolor on clay, 2013


Cavanaugh paints a lot of paintings of her youths wearing long patterned socks on their arms. This was some kind of stroke of inspiration she had years ago. The working of our visual system is such that we enjoy constructing form from the mapping of patterns over the surfaces of three-dimensional objects. That's why you get such a kick out of finding the Dalmatian in the field of dots. Evolution has shaped us to get a little neurochemical reward of some sort for successfully picking out the latent object half-hidden in the visual field. I assume it has to do with striped grassland predators. Cavanaugh has found this button in our brains and never stops mashing it.

"A Boat For You Within My Arms," Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30," watercolor on clay, 2008

(not included in the exhibit)


Cavanaugh is in no way above taking advantage of the human taste for bright happy colors, lots of them. That's why she worked out her esoteric medium of watercolor on clay. But notice she doesn't just splash her colors all over the place. When she is not stimulating our form-detection apparatus with pleasingly high-contrast monochrome contour lines, she stimulates it with carefully defined colored patches. Who can resist such a thing? She's playing around with the fundamental building blocks of visual cognition: edge, contrast, color. These elements, at the amplified levels Cavanaugh invokes, are the means by which children learn to process sight. We are helpless not to love solving Cavanaugh's little puzzles made out of such delicious parts.


"Over," Ali Cavanaugh, 12"x12," watercolor on clay, 2013


We love translucent and transparent things, nearly as much as we love sparkly things. Figuring out what we are looking at delights us: the outline of the translucent enclosing object, the outline of the opaque interior object, the shadow of the interior object on the near side of the enclosing object and the surface textures of the enclosing object -- all visible in this painting -- are things which we love to separate and comprehend. I don't know why.

"Banded," Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38," watercolor on clay, 2013


There is a whole body of speculation on why we are so attracted to symmetry, and this speculation applies to structure in music as much as it does in visual art. I personally think it is linked to the symmetry of our own bodies and that of most of the animals and plants we normally contend with. Bilateral symmetries tell us that all is well. Seeing a thing on one side, we seek its double on the other side. Finding it, we know an organism is both natural and healthy. We feel a horror at deep asymmetries, but we get a little thrill out of slight asymmetries. Those are natural too -- perfect symmetry is uncanny and unnatural. Cavanaugh takes advantage of our symmetry-seeking habits in her work, calibrating the irregularities she introduces to maximize their rewards.


"Adapt," Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30," watercolor on clay, 2013


The semaphore-like intentionality of the arms in Cavanaugh's work suggests to us that her figures are speaking. They are signing. They are making that link from the physical to the mental which is most elemental to us as symbol-making animals. Communication through symbols affirms to us that we share the palpable universe with souls like ourselves. It raises us from a state of merely sensual reward to one of companionship and transcendence. Without this linguistic element, Cavanaugh's work would celebrate the senses and their pleasures alone; it would not answer to what animates us socially. With the linguistic element, she makes her figures and us, not alone. She sketches out the basics of humanity. Her model is not complete, but her work is not meant to be all things. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Deafen," Ali Cavanaugh, 8"x8," watercolor on clay, 2013


Her work depends on focus. It's not like other artists haven't figured out the elements we've been considering and used it in their own work. Many of these tools are standard; none is new. But Cavanaugh uses forcible exclusion to focus on what she keeps. Like Kubrick, she puts only the relevant items into her frame and excises everything else, leaving a stark white. The white tells us about the intentionality of those elements which are present. It is like the rules in the notebook a child uses to practice letters. The blankness tells you where the letters stop. It defines what is inside the lines. What is inside the lines is the alphabet of joy.

As I said before, there are two problems with happiness in art. The second is the difficulty of manufacturing it: both of having the feeling and of meeting the high demands of its originating factors. I've taken the trouble to spell out exactly what I am seeing in Cavanaugh's art to demonstrate what I mean about that difficulty and how one artist meets it by refining and overlaying structure upon structure. The first problem remains the category error, the confusion of that, which flies with that which is massless. If you disagree I don't think I can convince you of my point here, but I can elaborate a bit on what I believe.

I believe that happiness is real and that it is important. In the units of measure of the soul there is nothing so heavy as happiness. Art educates. Tragic art teaches us how to deal with life, which is similarly tragic. But happy art, which is extraordinarily rare, also teaches us how to deal with life because life is happy as well. Cavanaugh's jewel-like work, so smiling and colorful and bright, is terribly important. She preserved her primal sense of joy, and as an adult, discovered a language to convey it. The pressures of living tend to make us forget her brand of happiness, which is our brand as well. She returns it to us. This is so unbelievably, casually generous.


All images courtesy of the artist.

Ali Cavanaugh
Mapping an Odyssey
Robert Lange Studios
2 Queen Street, Charleston SC, 29401, 843-805-8052
opening September 6, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. in conjunction with the nationwide Women Painting Women exhibitions (more here).