Top: Tornado, from the Calamity Series, 2009, collage: ink on paper, 15 1/2 x 11 3/8 inches
Bottom: Mercy (after Simone Martini), from the Paper Madonnas Series, 2008, collage: gouache on paper, with gold leaf, 12 x 8 inches
I met painter Elizabeth Bisbing while I was a student at Rutgers University. We were introduced by her daughter and my friend, Christine Ramsey-Wade (a seriously talented poet), who invited me to see her mother's work at an art opening in Red Bank, NJ. Bisbing's earlier works - small, square paintings depicting iconic spools of thread and geometric Monopoly houses in surreal, flat landscapes of bright, eerie color - conveyed complex themes of feminism and domesticity.
Bisbing met with me last week to discuss her current body of work that was most recently exhibited at Soho20 Chelsea Gallery in New York and is featured in the traveling group exhibition, The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces (now at Indiana University East). Her medium has shifted to collage, although the painter in her is still very evident, and her imagery is sourced from both the home and the museum. Referencing and borrowing imagery from famous masterpieces featuring iconic depictions of women, she re-interprets the paintings through small-scale collages, lending them new context and dimensionality. "I wanted to (reclaim) the word 'Master' since 'Mistress' doesn't work well for women; it has negative associations and implications," commented Bisbing.
The amount of detail and labor that goes into each of these collages is a testament to Bisbing's patience and love of creating them. She starts with several drawings that she then traces for her collage elements, essentially creating patterns which can be re-used for several works. Each element, which is often miniscule in size, is cut from sheets of different shades of colored paper that Bisbing has hand painted herself with gouache. The final product is painterly and mosaic-like all at once; the painstaking process quite evident in the work.
In addition to referencing masterpieces, Bisbing has created a series of collages which she has titled her "Calamity Series." These works, in black/white and gray scale, each show two little girls in the direct path of a natural disaster - a shark, a tidal wave or a tornado - innocently going about their play without any awareness or knowledge of danger. A mother of four, including two grown daughters, Bisbing "wanted to convey what it's like to be or to raise a little girl in our society."
Even if I didn't know Bisbing personally, I feel as though I would after seeing her work. From her art making process to her imagery, you get a sense of the artist's desires, hopes and fears; you can imagine just how she might be working in her studio. It's the work of an accessible visionary; a master you can relate to.