The Dystopian Vision of Diane Lara

I don’t remember the first time I met Diane Lara, but I assure you that she is unforgettable.  She is, by nature, a warm person with a complicated mix of unrestrained whimsy, sharp wit, and thoughtful seriousness; think two parts Ellen Degeneres and one part Gloria Steinem and you will have some semblance of her personality.  Socially, she embodies the “life of the party.”  As she has often quipped herself, she “loves to perform” and will more than likely take center stage in a public forum when given a chance.  Her sharp mind, quick quips, and self-deprecating humor, mixed with her highly principled nature, determine the fact that she is worthy of that social positioning.

Given her demonstrative, expressive, and highly social nature, it is not surprising that Lara is an artist.  What is surprising, however, is that her corpus of work does not belie the most fun-loving and carefree aspects of her social personae.  Her work tends toward the contemplative and contains reference to the more serious and troubling aspects of her own biography.

Though her specific subject matter has varied throughout the years, her approach has always been that of biographical narrative and, despite the fact that her body of work acts as a visual diary of her own life, it has also managed to explore the universal human experience – the search for emancipation and meaning in the midst of the concrete situations that limit our human experience.

Dancing DreamThe most consistent element within her biography chronicled within her work has been her very human struggle with the limiting experiences of both illness and aging, along with the genetic factors implicit in them. Undoubtedly, illness has been a defining force in the biography of Lara.  Her grandmother suffered from dementia, her mother from ALS, and her father with lung cancer.  In all of these instances, the illness was prolonged and increasingly debilitating. Through these extended processes, Lara was a significant caregiver for these loved ones.  This gave her responsibilities that only accelerated over time, increasingly demanding more of her attention and determining more of her actions.  In each of these situations, the increased demand continued in her life without reprieve until she was eventually emancipated through the tragedy of their unfortunate demise.

While chronicling her experiences with illness, Lara’s has sometimes focused her eyes on herself.  Her bachelor’s degree culminated in a series of prints that explored her psychological reactions to her emerging awareness of her own infertility.  In Perseverance, Lara refers to a debilitating gall bladder problem she had while working on her graduate degree in North Dakota.  Most times, however, Lara has focused her attention on the impact of illness and aging on family members.  Her “Tangles” series, which has traveled significantly throughout the province of Saskatchewan, gives emphasis to the subject of dementia embodied in the life of her maternal grandmother and a close friend.

Lara’s work denotes the social limitations which illness and aging places on people.  Over all, it illustrates how these inevitable processes of life work to produce increasing immobility, dependence, and vulnerability in the lives of people afflicted by them.  By this, she also implies the vicarious limitation that aging and illness places on those who inhabit the social spaces around the afflicted.

dianedetailWhile being highly cathartic in nature, Lara’s work is neither despairing nor angry.  She avoids being morose and does not exhibit any works with overt senses of resentment regarding the devastation that illness has brought to her loved ones or regarding the subsequent control it took in her life.

For as long as I have known Lara, I have been intrigued as to what exactly motivates her in the making of this work.  Though, to be sure, Lara’s art making is therapeutic in nature, I have not found this to be a satisfying explanation for the impetus for her work.  I have long suspected that there were more intense motives for the creation of this corpus.

Frank Zappa is quoted as saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  I agree with the sentiments of this saying.  Making art is a visceral activity that is often more intuitive than cognitive.  Typically, the artist is bringing forth a body of work driven by often-mysterious, inner impulses to create.  Given this reality, it is a very precarious thing to write critically or analytically about art, much less to attempt to bring cognitive consideration regarding the fundamental nature of any body of work and its ultimate motives.  My intention in casting a thoughtful eye toward Lara’s work or its motives is not to be either conclusive or exhaustive in regard to critical analysis.  I simply want to open up vistas of dialogue that I hope will be filled with an increased appreciation that I think the work deserves.

In my view, Diane Lara’s work takes on a significant import when considered in dialogue with the historical constructs that fuel the contemporary and popular views of beauty.  Clearly, there are a variety of thoughts regarding the nature of beauty that could converse with Lara’s work.  However, I would posit that the strongest assumptions regarding beauty are those that have been with us the longest.  I would argue that it is the most ancient philosophical assumptions regarding anything that sink the farthest into our psyches and function most powerfully under the radar of our consciousness.  In regard to beauty, this would be the assumption of its association with both order and symmetry.

Aristotle, one of the intellectual pillars of the Western sensibility, stated, “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.”  Augustine, another architect of Western consciousness, followed Aristotle’s lead and declared, “all bodily beauty consists in the proportion of the parts.”  In his seminal work Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present, Monroe Beardsley notes “the key concepts in Augustine’s theory of beauty are unity, number, equality, proportion, and order.”  In essence, this intellectual trajectory for beauty has determined it to be the positive emotional and cognitive response to the objects that most profoundly manifest order and balance.  Given this template, beauty has most often been associated with concepts such as health, happiness, vitality, and fertility.  Put another way, beauty has most often been association with a series of conceptions that resemble wholeness, unity, and totality.   This very general assumption regarding beauty has been the impetus for most of the aesthetic expressions in the Western world and, consequently, has determined much of the social perceptions of value.

You & Me VIIIBy implication, these assumptions about the essential nature of beauty determine an emotional distancing from that which is its antithesis – the chaotic or misshapen.  From this, it is apparent that a move toward the popular construct of beauty is a departure from that which is marred, miserable, weak, and sterile.  Consequently, this move toward transcendence regarding beauty is simultaneously a move away from the immanent reality of the ordinary, typical, banal and particular.

At the most fundamental levels, Lara’s work challenges these traditional assumptions of beauty, by focusing the viewer’s attention on the very dystopian experience of human illness and aging.  Where the tide of tradition has determined a mandate in which the artist is to avert human attention away from the imperfections in everyday life and toward the refined and universal ideals of order and balance, Lara’s work goes against the grain.  The traditions within her own aesthetic practices have determined a prolonged stare at the form of human suffering.  In so doing, this contemporary Moose Jaw artist leads us over the hill of predictable values and opens up a new horizon of axiological possibilities.

In form, Lara’s aesthetic presentations retain the traditional language of order and structure that has driven the Western dialogue about beauty.  Her collages epitomize a process of composition that suggest the restraint and control of exterior, organizing principles.  This concession to tradition provides the viewer with a familiar, comprehensible and palatable grammar that can be easily parsed, giving her work an air of domesticity. The fields of color, textures, and images that comprise her collages of information, are all warm and inviting, even docile.

The biographical nature of her work furthers its sense of conformist predictability.  The You & Me IXmeaning of the work seems to be the conveyance of historical information regarding the artist’s numerous and personal brushes with sickness.  However, like most people’s appreciation of beauty, this reading of her work seems hopelessly superficial.

I would contend that Lara’s work has, at its root, a subversive quality.  The palatable composition of her work, combined with the sense that it’s meaning is immediately comprehensible acts as a Trojan horse, allowing a deeper and more existential challenge to happen within the viewer.  This, in my understanding, is made consciously evident when one considers her work in the light of our traditional assumptions regarding beauty.

Traditional views of beauty would suggest a subject matter focusing on the symmetry of met expectations and the order of embodied ideals.  Practically, this would mean a visual emphasis on the endless potential, rapture, vivacity, and productivity that is exemplified in youth.  Lara’s work goes contra to this trend and, as a result, it challenges the historical, popular and contemporary constructs of beauty.  Where traditional and popular assumptions of beauty celebrate the ideals of health, happiness, vitality, and fertility, Lara’s work chronicles situations of imperfection that suggest the potential despair, lethargy, and aimlessness that is often found within the processes of both aging and illness. In this, I would suggest that she is exposing the practical weakness of this cognitive ideal to bring any lasting meaning to the concrete, physical existence of the individual.

Given Lara’s conscious feminism, it is not surprising that a substantial amount of   Lara’s work is predominantly focused on the subject of women.  Given the role that the popular philosophical constructs of beauty has played in dominating the social perception of women and how it has determined the choices placed before them, it is equally unsurprising that her work can be said to have a sublimated, critical dialogue with that subject.

02-Installation-MJMAG-2 To the greatest degree, Lara’s work has chosen women in very vulnerable situations in regard to the traditional values by which they have been given social worth.  The vast majority of women she memorializes are past their prime and thus no longer represent the ideals of vitality or fertility, meaning they can no longer be sexualized and found superficially attractive.  In addition, they are incapacitated either physically or mentally, meaning they can no longer be valued by their utility. This reaches an apex with the two women captured within the “Tangles” series.  They are well beyond the constructs of health, happiness, vitality, and fertility that comprise the dominating perception of beauty.

Her absence of aversion in regard to her infertility and the cryptic foreshadowing that is implicit within her bout with gallbladder trouble, serves to both personalize and intensify her dialogue with constructs of beauty and the questions of female (or human) social value which that dialogue emits.

To me, the overall grace in Lara’s work is that she manages to avoid a deconstructive cynicism in regard to beauty.  Avoiding the easy road of dismissing it altogether, Lara seems to be pursuing a more workable understanding of beauty that encompasses a greater sense of concrete reality.

As was stated earlier, moves toward the popular and traditional ideal of beauty are simultaneously departures from that which is broken.  This situation determines that attraction to the former breeds a sublimated contempt for the latter.  Within the context of a dialogue between Lara’s oeuvre and this tradition, her work sheds light on the ugly side of beauty.  Her continuous emphasis on the ordinary, plain, and marred realities of our concrete human experience, demonstrates the great gulf between that universal ideal and our particular everyday existence.

However, I would suggest that Lara is not seeking to deconstruct the nature of beauty as much as she is attempting to redirect the gaze of those pursuing it.  In dialogue with the popular constructs of this concept, her work seems to be saying that beauty is something that is found within our ordinary, human, everyday, flawed experience.  Her work implies that beauty is something intrinsic within our humanity that abides with us throughout our lives, giving us dignity and meaning.  In this sense, she is implying that beauty is not something external, superficial or extrinsic, attributing value from above like a patriarchal deity.  However, this emerging contemporary Moose Jaw artist seems to be saying something even more social and relational about beauty than this cognitive rendering of an article is stating.   What I am attempting to say is that the “beauty” of Lara’s work is seen in that, by giving unfettered emphasis to the tragic, it evokes pathos.  This, I would contend, is what her work means to say.

Diane Lara was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1956 and, in her later teens, she moved to Alberta.  After spending 17 years in the workforce, mostly as a legal secretary, she returned to the province of her birth.  Immediately on the heels of her return to Saskatchewan, Lara began taking classes at the University of Regina.  In 1995, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Printmaking and, three years later, received her Masters of Fine Art in the same discipline from the University of North Dakota.  Though she has spent most of her recent years in Moose Jaw, she has also served as an adjunct faculty at Bemidji State University and Medicine Hat College.  She continues her art practice in Moose Jaw.

 Since her graduation from the University of North Dakota, Lara has had four solo exhibitions and been involved in over 10 group exhibitions.  Her work is included in the collections of such diverse institutions as the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Hokkaido Museum (Japan), and the College of New Jersey. 

Ross Melanson

About Ross Melanson

He is a poet, visual artist, and independent scholar living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the Founding Editor of page51 – a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between art, culture, and philosophy. Read more →, or

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