Deborah Gottheil Nehmad’s Untitled, from 2003, is a study in obsession, pain, and the relationship between the two. Nehmad’s path to art has been an unlikely one. After an accident that resulted in severe injury, Nehmad was prevented from continuing her successful law practice. To keep herself productive and to facilitate the healing process, Nehmad took up the M.F.A. program in printmaking at the University of Hawai’i Manoa, from which she graduated in 1998. Since that time, her work has represented her attempts to quantify, categorize, and communicate the sensations of pain inflicted by her injury. Nehmad’s repetitive use of numerical figures has its origins in the oft-used system of describing pain on a scale of one to ten. In her work these numbers appear as an obsessive element repetitively scored onto the surface, thus including the viewer in Nehmad’s personal experience of chronic pain.
Nehmad’s interest in creating a visual vocabulary for pain has also influenced her choice of printmaking and drawing processes. In the painstakingly placed X markings of Untitled, the viewer can observe Nehmad’s expert use of pyrography, the application of a heated object to create burnt marks, and collagraphy, in which a substrate of various textural materials is used to print either in intaglio or relief. These two processes combined create an even stronger relationship between the paper and the body of the viewer. The imprint of the burning technique evokes a searing sensation, as if the heated object is being applied to one’s skin rather than to the surface of the paper. This technique is particularly evocative in Untitled, in which the symbol Nehmad chooses to repeat is an X. The letter X brings certain images and ideas to mind, many of which seem applicable to Nehmad’s attempts to visually represent physical pain. For example, the phrase “X marks the spot” feels pertinent here, as the continual scoring of the letter X could be seen as an attempt to give pain a location, both on the body and on the paper. Additionally, an X can symbolize danger or inaccuracy–something to steer clear of or something wrong. In using this particular character, Nehmad demonstrates both the desire to locate her pain and the deep emotional toll of the body’s betrayal of the mind.