The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

Michael Cunningham

Joy Episalla's work achieves what Flannery O'Connor called "the transfiguration of the commonplace". Although O'Connor's life and work could not be more different, at least on
the surface, than Episalla's, I find that I often think of O'Connor's greatest fiction when I look
at Episalla's photographs. Like O'Connor, who was fearless enough to believe in sin and redemption, Episalla seems convinced that every being and object, no matter how outwardly humble, is infused with an essential mystery, the way any single strand of DNA contains the blueprint for the entire organism. Like O'Connor, Episalla sees the world with such stubborn subjectivity that the most ordinary things-a pile of pillows, a curtain-hint at depths so elusive and profound it is hard to give them a name. And like O'Connor, Episalla understands that if grace and transcendence do in any way figure in our lives they almost inevitably arrive with
an intensity so blinding and terrible we may not survive, at least not in our corporeal form.

Like the work of most artists I revere, Episalla's photographs render me, at best, semi-articulate. Trying to talk about them resembles the difficulty I face, as a novelist, when I try
to write about the world in which I live. Episalla's art, like the world, is complete; it contains
its own meaning. Like the world, Episalla's work inspires in me a certain fear that I can add nothing to it; that in fact I will only reduce it by picking at a thread here and a thread there;
by calling it this or calling it that.

I'll do the best I can to account for the particular depths of feeling Episalla's work summons
in me. First I have to praise its straightforward, unapologetic beauty. At this time in history, Episalla's devotion to beauty is just about as fearless as was O'Connor's distinctly unfashionable belief in sin and redemption. While her work conjures in me the same slightly queasy sense of slumbering menace I derive from O'Connor it also possesses, in abundance, the generosity and melancholy kindness of Felix Gonzales-Torres. Like Gonzales-Torres,
and unlike O'Connor, Episalla loves the surface of the world, its rampant thinness. It would be
one thing if Episalla were determined to reveal the beauty in the ostensibly unbeautiful - that's a relatively common undertaking-but she's after something more peculiar and dangerous
than that. She probes for the dark, associative beauty in objects like bedding, drapery,
clothing and accessories, all of which purport to be beautiful but in prosaic, obvious ways.
She rescues these ordinary objects from their own modest ambitions, and reveals them in their truer strangeness.

This revelation seems to work, in part, through Episalla's linking of the objects not just to the people who have used them but to flesh itself. Two of three pillows are stained, drooled on
or bled on; the third is immaculate. The interior of a handbag is almost shockingly organic
and sexual. In this world-within-the-world, people's most intimate appurtenances are not just marked by use but transformed by it; they are transubstantiated, like bread and wine. Although they remain pillows, handbags, draperies-the integrity of the object is always respected-they are also the ghosts of their users, and it doesn't matter if those people are alive or dead. If
the objects in a room know no difference between our temporary departures and our ultimate demise, this is a part of us that lives forever: this evidence of our eating, our sex, our sleep, our collective humanness, with the surface particulars scoured away. Dreams were dreamt
on these pillows, troves of information carried in these handbags, but the specifics have vanished into a larger appreciation of our collective dreaming, our vast autobiography of
keys, medicine, identification.

I think of Episalla's photographs as charting a line between the domestic and the profound. Their depths emerge as I look longer. The pillows are mounted on panels that don't quite match up; the curtains are treated simultaneously as recognizable curtains and as abstractions composed of color, texture, shadow. Stitches, spots, and stains often figure prominently, and they are always ravishing. The joinings and the accidents are every bit
as beautiful as the objects' more legible attempts to be perfect versions of themselves.

We live in bodies, we live in rooms, and we eventually leave them. Episalla's work insists
that the stuff of art resides as squarely in our ephemera as it does anywhere else, and that
the various geographies of a curtain, a human form, a pillow, a gesture and a dream are at least as much alike as they are different.

Here, then, are the body and its humors, memorialized. Here are the rips and tears, and the attempts at mending. Here is a curtain, beautiful, enigmatic, treated as the subject-never mind what might or might not lie behind it.

Here is the rigour of O'Connor, the wrenching and unsentimental sweetness of Gonzales-Torres, and here, of course, is something else entirely, something Episalla has invented. Here are a few insubstantial objects-just thread and air, some feathers, longer lived than the body but ultimately as perishable-exalted, seen in all their beauty and strangeness, adored.