Foley tackles depression in first local solo show in 20 years

German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer's etching “Melencolia I” is among the most-studied pieces of art of its time. The work is an intellectual self-examination through the prism of the emerging philosophy of the time that suggested creativity and a personal disposition of melancholy are bound together.

Artist Sean Foley's reference to the work in the title of his upcoming exhibition at Angela Meleca Gallery — Foley's first solo show in Columbus in 20 years — is apt, therefore, given the level of introspection involved in the creation of the work.

“All of my work has always been informed and influenced by two ideas: the grotesque and the monstrous,” Foley said in a phone interview. “Not to say that I draw monsters, but grotesque in terms of a conglomeration of forms, and monstrous being more a conceptual idea. Monstrous is something we view in a speculative state. Things that are truly monstrous are things that you don't actually see. Once you see a monster, you look for a zipper.

“All my work is based on that and external to me.”

Not so with “Melancholia,” Foley said, which concerns “my ongoing struggles and dealing with depression and trying to parse out the difference between a sense of feeling melancholy and being depressed.”

While experiencing a difficult period in 2015, including two deaths in the family, medical concerns and other issues — “Everybody at some point has that feeling of everything happening all at once,” Foley said — the artist began to consider the notion of expressing these feelings in his art.

“You often hear of writers saying, ‘Write what you know,'” Foley said. “So this was kind of a monster to me, … dealing with [that] sense of sadness or despair.”

This proved challenging on a number of levels, not the least of which is what Foley called “a clear distinction between depression and melancholy.” But there was reason, beyond the link to Durer's work, for the choice of title. Calling the show “Melancholia,” Foley said, allowed him to insert moments of dark humor in the work.

“Everybody experiences depression differently, but, for me, trying to have a little objectivity to it all, it almost seemed absurd that I could be having those feelings,” Foley said. “But I'm still thinking on and considering the feeling of depression, so it created a kind of a dance in the studio.”

The other challenge was Foley's inability to give an immediate expression to his bouts of depression.

“It can be debilitating. When I'm having a bout of depression, I can't necessarily work in the studio at all. The irony is that, to make work about [depression] I have to feel really good,” he said.

“Melancholia” provided a different viewpoint on which to work from Foley's recent studies and teaching on the notion of wonder, which Foley described as the opposite of depression.

“With wonder, you're open to the world and to experience, and in depression you're closed off,” he said. “I thought about this for a long time in researching wonder, so it made sense to dive into the opposite.”