In Chicago artist Hollis Sigler’s (1982), everyday objects are strewn across a childlike mountainscape. There’s a high-heeled shoe, a doll, a toppled chair—all hint at some drama that has just occurred. The composition is, as is typical of Sigler’s work, absent of people. Her viewers are privy to the aftermath, but not the main event. Hovering above the scene, the title of the work appears in small, delicate cursive.
Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1948, Sigler went on to become an influential artist in the Chicago art scene of the 1980s and ’90s and helped found the feminist art collective and alternative gallery Artemisia. A feminist and a lesbian, she often explored women’s inner lives in ways both intensely personal and idiosyncratic.
In 1985, the much-beloved artist was diagnosed with breast cancer—a disease that had stricken both her mother and grandmother. Until her death from the disease, at age 53, in 2001, she often directly grappled with illness in her art, deploying her unique catalogue of symbols with tenacity, humor, and beauty. Many of the themes for which she is best known, however, predate her illness—and most can be found in
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as a tribute to Sigler’s singular artistic legacy, we decided to take a closer look at this symbol-packed work to find three facts that might change or expand the way you see it.
Florine Stettheimer Inspired Her Stage-Like Scenes
Though it would be impossible to tell from the work for which she is best known, Sigler started out paining in a realist style as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1970s. She even gained some acclaim for her renderings of swimmers underwater. But in 1976, she abandoned realism, having come to associate the style with a patriarchal, academic ethos, and shifted to the faux-naive aesthetic she would embrace for the rest of her career.
This new style was in part influenced by the legacy of the Hairy Who?, the 1960s Chicago group that embraced cartoon-like imagery and vibrant colors. But it was Florine Stettheimer, the turn-of-the-century painter, theater designer, poet, and salonnière, who most powerfully influenced Sigler after she happened upon her work in a 1970s survey of feminist art.
Stetteheimer’s theatrically staged compositions were game-changing for Sigler. In , the influence is apparent in her clear delineation of foreground, middleground, and background. The hills and mountains read almost as stage elements, along with a flattened perspective that reads as a backdrop.
In the catalogue for “Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart,” a 1995 group show at Holly Solomon Gallery devoted to Stettheimer’s influence, the curator Michael Duncan noted the artist’s lasting impression on Sigler, writing, “In her brilliantly colored paintings, Hollis Sigler presents stage settings for the drama of everyday life. Sigler locates her theater in our living rooms, kitchens, and sickrooms, animating her drama with loaded props and explosive symbols. Like Stettheimer, she evokes a private life through poetic images, dynamic color, and fanciful emblems.”
Classical Female Statues Were a Metaphor for the Artist’s Triumphs
Smack in the middle of is a depiction of the ancient statue the Venus of Arles, now in the collection of the Louvre. The motif of the classical female sculpture became one of the most frequent and powerful in Sigler’s work, often serving as a visual surrogate for the artist herself. Here presented as a pristine beauty, some versions of the statues appear in states of great physical duress as Sigler’s illness progressed.
Of a later painting, the journalist Lee Fleming described Sigler’s depiction of the famed : “ stands in armless profile atop a shallow fiery-hued tumulus not unlike a breast. Red rain falls; a bloodied, paving-stone path encircles the mound like a scar.”
These statues from antiquity remained a largely positive symbol and served to underscore the artist’s transcendence over the adversities of daily life—appearing, as in this work, to rise above the earthly chaos.
Her Landscapes Channel Apocalyptic Folk Art as a Metaphor for Female Desire
After turning away from the popular artistic styles of her day, Sigler became deeply influenced by folk and outsider art—and particularly, its emphasis on apocalyptic imagery. She incorporated biblical mountainscapes, bursts of flames, hellish red, and fiery valleys, some of which can be found in .
Often, these tropes have been viewed through the lens of her illness and mortality. Importantly, however, Sigler was first drawn to these expressions as a means of signaling her own outsider status as a queer woman artist. From that perspective, some critics and historians have argued that the apocalyptic imagery was intended as an allusion to desire rather than illness.
A reviewer of “Expect the Unexpected,” a 2010 survey of her work at the Chicago Cultural Center, summarized the intent of her populist religious overtones, writing: “These tropes are employed to an emotional end, repurposed to address the nature of feminine and queer desire. Much of Sigler’s work focuses on the liberation of desire, whether just beyond the valley, outside of a window, or rising to heaven.”
In this reading, the revelation Sigler alludes to is not one of death and resurrection, but of sexual awakening. Notably, too, the shattered mirrors that appear in (and in many other works) may embody the sense of isolation and self-denial experienced by many queer women of the era—an interpretation that lends additional significance to burden expressed in the title.