Essay: Patty B. Driscoll’s Persistent Assertions

by Brett Levine


In her review of Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History and Still-Life Painting by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, the critic Hanneke Grootenbauer observes, “diverse as they are, [still life] images share the rendering of foodstuffs, flowers, bowls, and other mundane, insignificant objects at the margins of their compositions. What happened around 1600 is that these prosaic objects suddenly became the focal point of a single picture.” It is five-hundred-and-eighteen years later, and thank goodness Patty B. Driscoll got the memo, but it omitted the part about her subject matter having previously been mundane. For Driscoll is, it could be argued, a documentarian of certain things that are being pulled unceremoniously from the side of the road as you read this: before you ask, that beautiful flower asserting itself from this exquisite silver-footed vessel is, in fact, kudzu. So not only is it mundane, but it is in fact invasive—allowing Driscoll to celebrate an even more complex paradigm—that no, despite its name, one can’t read the full potential of an object from its denotation.

It is a problem that situates the entirety of Persistence. On their surface, each work is simply the depiction of a beautiful botanical. But there lies the problem, because, for Patty B., the issue is not so much the object, but its content, not so much what is being represented, but what it represents. And at first, the apparent disjunction between work and meaning can be difficult. When I first encountered these paintings in Driscoll’s studio, I was reminded of Allan Moyle’s 1980 film Times Square, which has a track entitled “Your Daughter is One”:

“you wanna make Times Square as cold as your icy eyes/why do you wanna punish people who aren’t like you?/You know that at home I’ve heard you use these following words/sp*c/n*****/f*gg*t/psycho/well I just want you to know your daughter is one/SP*C!/N*****!/F*GG*T!/BUM!/Your Daughter is One!“

What? You probably couldn’t even record the song today. And yet you can call a woman bossy, or humiliate her for asserting her beliefs. Well . . . well, there on the table were some silk scarves, emblazoned with terms including “bitchy,” “bossy,” and “haughty”. The words, however, emerge subtly and subliminally, invisible to the casual viewer, much like a secret handshake, a nod, a wink to the initiated. It was as if Driscoll had ripped a back page from a late-1970s Rolling Stone magazine where you used to be able to buy a t-shirt on which the blades of grass very surreptitiously read, “Fuck You.”

All of this would seem to be little more than the whimsy of a “woman artist” (perhaps hysterical?), were it not for the fact that Driscoll’s entire project is so nuanced, so exquisitely grounded in history and politics, that the uninitiated and uninformed will remain that way. The flowers that spurred the entire project, and that adorn both the scarf and the frontispiece and endpapers of the catalogue, are her homage to the J. Hyde Crawford violets that adorned the bags and promotional materials for Bonwit Teller. Why Bonwit Teller? Because their 5th Avenue flagship store was adorned with Art Deco masterpieces that Donald J. Trump jackhammered off the building’s facade after promising to remove them to be donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” Persist she did, and she does, as do the powerful women which situate this work. Women for whom the titles to each painting, and the botanicals that embody each quality, both reflect and inspire.

The paintings become portraits in these embodiments. Sometimes, this is actual, as in the tiny (and unintentional) self-portrait Driscoll included in Hysterical—an unexpected result that emerged once she pulled back far enough from the surface to allow the image to emerge in focus in its entirety. That a flower or plant can metaphorically assert specific qualities allows an easier conceptual and psychological transference from the personal to the universal, making the capacity to identify with both the power and the beauty of each painting simpler and more universal. So, in Defiant, the kudzu flowers rise from a silver urn, making an invasive species beautiful by focusing on how it blooms. Of course, its power and danger is implied by being encased in a cluster of blackberries, pulled, presumably, from a thorny thicket.

In Matriarch, a George Jensen Acorn-pattern silver cup asserts its strength not through the delicacy of the flowers and vines it contains, but from the delicate foot it thrusts forward into the painting’s foreground. It is as if the blueberries look to the foot for confirmation or encouragement.

At times, the works embody dreams, identities, and emotions, as in Flyaway. The title is a reference to the name of a family relative’s cook, a fact that Driscoll has always found both incredible and poetic. But Flyaway is also an idea of escape—ironically made manifest in paint by being a bouquet of flowers, bound in rope, laid upon a table.

If one reads the titles of Driscoll’s paintings positively, then Aggressive simply becomes a synonym for assertive, as is the power of the kudzu stem in the foreground of the eponymously named painting that rises from lower right to upper left.

At times, Driscoll loves to cast against type, as it were, as if the entire body of work were not an example of this approach. Case in point is Abrasive, in which serrated leaves of mint burst forth from the Jensen cup again. This time, it is the implied sweetness of the plant itself, with the memories and relationships it creates, that stand in contrast to the very notion of being abrasive. Perhaps there is some hint of being “rough around the edges,” because mint itself can be powerful, but again this is simply Driscoll’s way of inverting a slur to a strength.

It would be easy to simply situate these works as examples of still-life painting that have been overlaid with notions of more complex meanings and intentions. That would be a mistake. In fact, these works reflect entirely the opposite. The paintings in Persistence are first and foremost entirely that: they reflect the concrete effort and expertise of a woman well-versed in the intricacies and intimacies of small-scale portraiture and oil painting. Working in close quarters and at this scale requires such patience, skill, and dexterity that it is almost impossible to describe. Its closest corollaries would be the watchmaker and the jeweler.

Next, to work this way requires that Driscoll embody each of the descriptors that men have asserted as character flaws, but that are in fact qualities: these works are in fact Defiant, Aggressive, Persistent, and Opinionated. At times, they may even be Shrill, but this would only be in an effort to be heard over the extraordinary cacophony of mansplaining that means that women have to raise their voices to be heard. Patty B. Driscoll’s quiet, contemplative work is the embodiment of the nuanced, intelligent, complex approach to painting that allows representational easel painting to reassert its significance as an early 21st-Century mode of expression. For the more traditional portrait subject, Driscoll has substituted flowers. She is, in a sense, trying to blur the distinctions between two genres, to make viewers understand that it is possible to embody emotions and intentions within the seemingly unexpressive and inert. One might think here of Michel Foucault, writing in his essay on Las Meninas—only here it is not flowers, but a mirror reflecting us, the viewers, that he is speaking of: “this is the only one that fulfils [sic] its function in all honesty and enables us to see what it is supposed to show. Despite its distance from us, despite the shadows all around it. But it isn’t a picture: it is a mirror. It offers us at last that enchantment of the double that until now has been denied us [. . .]”

Here, each work in Persistence is that mirror, offering us that double that has been denied to us, reflecting that quality, condition, or emotion that should reside in each of us, embodying the better that can spring forth and grow within us. Assert. Abrade. Persist. Defy. Fly Away.


Learn more about the history and context behind this work: Bonwit Teller