Written by Kathryn McKinney
Art and madness have been linked in a cliche so old, it’s almost biblical. In Eric Finzi’s “Feel” (up for a limited engagement at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art) the subject is not the artist, as often is, but the case study of Augustine drawn from medical history, an inmate/patient of the infamous Salpêtrière Hospital in 19th century Paris. During her incarceration for hysteria she was subjected to experimental treatments (rather, torture), as well as extensive photographic observation of her “hysterical” reactions to treatment. Finzi captures this history in the exhibition of paintings in epoxy, resin and pigment, his use of medical tools in the process (a style of painting with a syringe) a practical cross-over from his practice as a dermatological surgeon.
The painting itself has an abstract and grotesque quality, in line with the traditional representations of madness established by the likes of Goya and Munch, rendered in more modern materials. It’s befitting the subject that not too much aesthetic attention be paid to the work, if it were more meticulous the story would feel overly fetishized. The piece “Séance” is unique in it’s loveliness, and is a literal stand out hung in a room alone like a pane of stained glass.
All but one piece, a dark and gloomy image of “Salpêtrière,” feature Augustine, dubbed the “pinup girl of Hysteria.” The scope and lasting impression made by Augustine and other women like her is an important visual legacy in our culture, for some time their physicality established a cultural sane/insane binary, the appearance of crazy. Interestingly, many of these patients, including Augustine, who consented to having their treatments photo-documented received special treatment as pseudo celebrities of the hospital, and so took their “performances” as hysterics quite seriously in order to maintain their status. Contemporary audiences’ perceptions of mental illness are so radically changed from Augustine’s era that traditional imagery of her now feels almost campy, and more fitting for Halloween than genuine expressions of insanity. Finzi, whose own medical research focus’ on the manipulation of facial expression for psychiatric benefit, may feel that seeing is believing, his work mainly obscures Augustine’s features, a statement on the murky status of her “diagnosis”. The most clear image of her in “Photophobic Hysteric” seems to depict her as a man, the disguise she devised to eventually escape from Salpêtrière, never to be seen again.
 Marks, Christine. “Hysteria, Doctor-Patient Relationships, and Identity Boundaries in Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved”. University of Mainz, Germany. http://www.genderforum.org/issues/literature-and-medicine-i/hysteria-doctor-patient-relationships-and-identity-boundaries-in-siri-hustvedts-what-i-loved/
 Didi-Huberman, Georges. “Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière”. MIT Press, 2004.
There will be an artist talk artist Tuesday the 19th at 6pm. More information at the link below.