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Over the Wall

Ghosts That Haunt Her: One of Daphne Scholinski's stark works.

Institutionalized as a teen, Daphne Scholinski turns pain into art

By Giancarlo Davis

When S.F. artist Daphne Scholinski was attending college, one of her art instructors assigned a project to his students. They were to create something that the student deemed to be the most accurate projection of his or her identity. The following day Daphne brought in what she thought best represented herself: a cardboard box filled with sand, from which protruded a pair of barbell handles, weighing well over 100 pounds. "There," she recalls saying. "This best represents who I am." The professor was amazed by her project.

Scholinski's art is a process of relief from the burden of her memories. As a child, Scholinski had predilections for girls and jeans. As a result, in 1981, at the age of 14, she was diagnosed with the dubious "gender identity disorder" and committed to a psychiatric institute in the Midwest.

She became a victim of the still-popular psychiatric trend that flourished in the early '80s: the creation of new diagnoses which lead to incarceration of middle-class white kids for "socially deviant" behavior. Institutionalized during the entirety of her adolescence, she wasn't released until a few months after her 18th birthday: shortly after the expiration of her health insurance.

She spent her internment surrounded by white walls, individuals who had proven to themselves they were the Messiah, and doctors who clinically stigmatized her art by reducing the works to psychoanalytic categories.

Her current exhibit, SENT(a)MENTAL at the Lawrence Hultberg Gallery, consists of nightmarish tableaux depicting those institutional experiences. Painted in an array of media that she considers "direct extensions" of herself, the macabre memoirs are abstract figures of ambiguous sexual determination in contorted poses: frustrated revelations of an individual locked away because of her sexual identity. "My freedom was removed," Scholinski states. "They were literally taking my life away."

The disturbing figures in her paintings are ways in which the artist now copes with her memory. "The memories are so fresh. I was released more than 13 years ago; but I close my eyes and I feel as if it were a few days ago." The poignant immediacy of her experiences are displayed upon canvas in nightmarish (and enigmatically captivating) human shapes, carved out of shadow and enduring excruciating moments of psychological pain.

One piece, "Wish You Were Here," depicts a human form seemingly supplicating in agony as it bleeds out of recognition. The painting is inscribed with the cheerful words "Dear Mom & Dad, having a wonderful time here," written backwards.

This interplay of reversed, almost invisible text on her large canvasses urges the viewer to take in two perspectives: first from a distance, to absorb the whole of the piece; then closer to it, to examine the intimate details "The viewer has to come closer to the painting in order to read the text," she says. "The process brings him or her closer to my own experience in the hospital."

To Scholinski, painting is a necessary means of expression that alleviates pain and horror. "The suppression of emotion is the depletion of life," Scholinski says. "When I was living in Brooklyn, I would often bring street kids into my home for painting sessions. After unloading the weight of their life onto their canvasses, they were much happier after these sessions." Indeed, Scholinski's works could be seen as violent prophecies: the individuals in her paintings locked away from society are like unexpressed emotions writhing helplessly, completely out of touch with the rest of the world.

Scholinski is currently at work on an autobiography chronicling her experiences; the book, titled The Last Time I Wore a Dress (co-written by Jane Meredith Adams), is due out in the fall. Scholinski also is expecting to have another installment at the Lawrence Hultberg Gallery in June.

SENT(a)MENTAL shows through May 4. The following exhibit by artist Robert Setrakian, "Recent Imaginations," is at the Lawrence L. Hultberg Fine Art Gallery, 544 Hayes St., May 7­June 8, 1997.

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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