A fresh look at Madness

Joan Sullivan
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Michael Pittman has embarked on a journey into the dark past of mental illness

'A History of Madness' is a visual investigation of how mental illness has been treated, classified and stigmatized throughout history."

Visual artist Michael Pittman is speaking from his Grand Falls-Windsor home, describing his latest project. Pittman is an artist known for his spare yet layered canvases, full of odd, telling shapes, "very singular and archetypal," and delicate colours sometimes offset with primary, or primal, blares.

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'A History of Madness' is a visual investigation of how mental illness has been treated, classified and stigmatized throughout history."

Visual artist Michael Pittman is speaking from his Grand Falls-Windsor home, describing his latest project. Pittman is an artist known for his spare yet layered canvases, full of odd, telling shapes, "very singular and archetypal," and delicate colours sometimes offset with primary, or primal, blares.

But for the moment he has put down his paintbrushes and picked up some books. His "History of Madness" is intended to work on a couple of levels - not just as an exhibition, but also as a fact-based accounting of the treatment of the mentally ill over the past several centuries.

"I'm researching right now, doing the preliminary, formal reading - I just finished Foucault's 'Madness and Civilization,'" Pittman said. "I'm collecting material on how (madness) is and was viewed."

Research

This study is important to him. He likes to start painting by applying a lot of ideas, brainstorming on canvas, then distilling the imagery. "My work is often very reductive. I remove and scrape and blot things out."

This clearage allows his paintings to be more crisply articulated. "The symbols and icons, they may not be specific, they may be vague and semi-formless, but they speak to the idea, the colour field. I like the work to have a level of visual complexity."

He does not leave blank spaces. Even a section that does not contain some figuration is scraped, scratched and taut. "I really heavily work the piece. Even the still areas get built up. It's a combination of heavily textured painterly areas with other areas quite pared down."

For his "History of Madness" investigations, Pittman's texts go back as far as the 1600s. He is finding much of the history rich in imagery. "Some past treatments and diagnoses were more supernatural than medical. Some treatments included different chemicals and oils that would be put on the head to create pustules to let the evil out."

Other cures required elaborate and probably tortuous apparatus designed to restore a patient's spiritual or humorous equilibrium. Some older standard treatments would now be considered severe, bizarre and invasive; like trepanning, drilling holes in the head to let the bad spirits out.

"The general way these illnesses were described was more intuitive - in some ways they seem to make more sense than today's medical diagnoses. They focused on the way the person feels. They had complex ideas - probably wrong, but they were complex - of what was going on inside you."

Humours

The earlier physicians, for example, would focus their analysis on a discussion of humours, a quartet of substances thought responsible for the health or illness of the body, and might conclude that an overabundance of black bile was being drawn to a certain area of the body, causing depression and anxiety.

Rankings of mental illnesses have also much changed. Some thatxwere thoughtxvery serious are now considered mild. And some that were classified as acute disorders are now not considered mental illness at all.

But the most important adjustment, said Pittman, is that mental illness now carries fewer stigmas. "Because it is talked about. And that's good."

Common thread

In any case, the theme has long interested him. "It's a common thread that runs in the back of a lot of the work I've done earlier." A recent exhibition at The Leyton Gallery, titled "A Disquieting Strangeness," "was about the relationship between creativity and mental illness. An earlier body of work dealt with psychological experience as it relates to place."

Pittman gleans his information from several personal sources, including family and friends. Mental illness, he said, is widespread in its impact.

"It touches everybody. And this (project) will use imagery to inform, to open up and look at the way society andxhistory viewed mental illness."

He hopes viewers will find the work "timely and relevant."

His goal is to complete 20 large pieces, 4' x 4' or 4' x 6', for public exhibition. He expects that will take about six months.

"This will be a body of work and the intention is to keep it together for exhibition opportunities in public areas. It's speaking about mental illness and I'd like to get some feedback. I'm really excited about it. I am stepping back from creating work for sale to working for a public exhibition and I don't want to go halfway."

Geographic location: Grand Falls-Windsor

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