As Mandi Caskey began to hatch plans for a new exhibit at the Diane Kidd Art Gallery at Tiffin University, roughing out a series of sketches on canvas, she was immediately struck by the realization her work had taken an intensely personal turn.
“It was like, oh, okay, so this is the direction we’re going,” Caskey said, and laughed. “And then it was like, well, there’s no turning back now.”
The Columbus artist created the works that will be on display in “Perfection’s Playful Paradox: The Art of Skillful Imperfection,” which opens at Diane Kidd on Friday, Jan. 19, during a two-week purge as she processed her mom’s stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis – a discovery that sent Caskey reeling and led her to interrogate everything from her dating life to what it could mean to exist on her own absent both parents. (Caskey’s father died when she was 15 years old.)
Rather than shy from the vulnerable emotions that pinwheeled through her, the artist leaned into them, creating a series of paintings that reflected her fractured state of mind. In one piece, a mouth stretches into an exaggerated scream, the image then overlaid with a series of spray-painted x’s that have a way of extending these frustrations beyond the canvas. In another, a beautifully rendered figure is depicted with their back turned, flanked by a series of hastily sketched, cartoonish figures who frown, cry and otherwise emote.
“There were a lot of pieces that were almost capturing these manic moments, and I feel like you can see it in the work itself, where it’s very clear it’s this moment of purge,” Caskey said via Zoom from Newport Music Hall in early January, where she was in the process of putting the finishing touches on a commissioned mural. “And it’s funny, because when you look at [the collection] as a whole, it’s like, oh, this is cute, happy work. There are bright colors and flowers. But then maybe there’s a dick painted on it, or something saying, ‘But why?’ There’s this undertone of deep sadness, where it's like, fuck, I guess this is coming out now.”
To better capture the raw, unvarnished feelings with which she was wrestling, Caskey said she had to learn to let go of her perfectionist tendencies, which she traced back to childhood, recalling how she had to capture the precise way the light struck an object, or to perfectly match the shade of paint in a piece to its real-life counterpart.
“When you’re making work, sometimes you want to show all the things you can do, right? It’s like, ‘I’m really good at hands, or figure drawing, or anatomy.’ And when you branch away from that and try to abstract things, you still want to show the audience that you still have that understanding. And then it becomes a fine line between she fucked up that finger and she meant to fuck up that finger,” said Caskey, who tried to refrain from overthinking while creating the work on display in “Perfection’s Playful Paradox.” “With a lot of the pieces, I would just start spray painting the shit out of it if I got angry, or I would start scribbling on it in colored pencil. There were a lot of these elements of frustration, but then also calculated moments of detail to show that I’m still aware of the work and how it’s going to be represented.”
Caskey’s move to break herself open on canvas coincides with a decision to do the same outside of the studio. The artist recently aligned with the youth suicide prevention campaign Be Present Ohio, sharing that she has reached a point in her own mental health journey where she finally feels more empowered to speak up.
“People will look at me, like, ‘She’s the happiest person alive.’ But they don’t know the steps I’ve taken to get here,” Caskey said. “I think it’s an important story to tell, and I’m finally at a point where I can articulate it well, and also to know what it means to articulate it. … If I could have seen an artist who was successful and doing the things I would like to do, and they were talking about real things they had gone through and not just putting on a front all of the time, it would have been super helpful to a younger me.”
While Caskey has always embraced art as a means of untangling these heavier emotions, she's only recently become comfortable with the idea of allowing these fractures more prominent space within the canvas, tracing the vulnerability on display in her newest works to a larger maturation that has taken root in her personal life. “If I wasn’t comfortable sharing where I’ve been mentally and emotionally, and if I hadn’t grown as much as I have, I totally wouldn’t have been able to execute on this exhibit,” she said. “It would be less raw, or more staged, instead of feeling like this purging of emotion. And that can make you feel vulnerable, but it also feels really good.”