My latest painting, a large one (40 by 56″) , large at least for my studio, is at last finished!
It has not been an easy birth, unbelievably having been started February of 2014.
Between other paintings, my time in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and my own uncertainty , the painting often languished . And when I thought it near complete, and to my satisfaction, my last critique group, left me once again in the grip of uncertainty. After nearly four weeks of being unable to paint (hence a stream of drawings) I at last regained my faith in this painting, finished it up, and now consider it one of my best.
oil on canvas
40 by 56″
The painting is undeniably complicated, visually and in its narrative; I think that is why my critique might have had some issue with it. But my interest in paintings often includes complicated compositions; I might be hubristic but my intention with this painting was to emulate in my modest way the elaborate tableaux paintings of Poussin. I studied them carefully, which is pleasurable work as he is one of my idols. I captured what I love about his paintings: the ability to stare at this painting and discover ever unfolding details. Bosch of course, another idol, also gives us that generous gift. But I think for many viewers, particularly those with the 6-second attention span, this painting will not please. I perhaps, to satisfy contemporary tastes should have left the painting in its initial planning stages; something several folks, had hoped for. I might have saved myself headaches and angst, but I would have been very unhappy. This painting ,in its finished state,makes me happy.
(Initial stage of the painting, I do like it, I like the ghostly images; but I am not that sort of painter. I love a lapidary finish.)
The story behind this painting is complex and personal. It began after discovering the Gnostics, with the concept of the Demiurge, a false god posing as a true god. Misleading the faithful down a path of sanctimonious righteousness . My demiurge, the bronze figure in the center is a sarcastic depiction of Christ the Church. If I were to change anything it would be this element . It is more cynical than I now feel , with our new pope, the blessed Francis, my relationship with the Church has become warmer, more loving . I know longer harbor the estranged hurt and anger I felt when I began this painting. But instead of erasing him, I felt it good to keep a record of my discontent.
The Demiurge, center flanked by details of the earth goddess Coatlicue, one of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and the Axis Mundi.
Going counterclockwise , from upper left around, I will attempt to offer clues to the figures:
My initial conceit for this painting was to utilize “bad” gods, unfortunate figures, maligned archetypes, to do battle with the smug and sanctimonious , be it the Church herself, the pompous evangelist down the street, ISIS, or that homophobic second grade teacher who shamed you for playing with the girls. That said, the upper left figures are depiction of the denizens of Xiblaba, the underworld of the Popol vuh. Next, descending in a very theatrically baroque manner is the savior Quetzalcoatl . Below, stands the accursed Judas ( noose still dangling) and the blessed Magdalene, clad only in her long hair, as per the archetype. Next to her, stands the familiar companion of the Other, the Scapegoat.
The Scapegoat .
In the next quarter, the Mesoamerican rain god Tlaloc sheds tears for humankind, he is attended by a companion vaguely reminiscent of the figures found in Teotihuacan, possessing triangular heads. Further back, the Mother of the Gods, the Aztec earth mother, She of the Serpent Skirt,Coatlicue, she hurries her son, the Great War god Huitzililopochtli into toppling their nemesis, the Demiurge, embodied by the Church that silenced them.
Next to them is a gaggle of squawking birds, sure of themselves, confident in their noise, essentially those who I politically and religiously disagree. Next to them, well I guess that is me.
In the third quarter, I placed a Boschian figure of no particular meaning, just an odd blue figure with a piscine phallic nose. Next , again, just vague figures, a Fire-god aflame with passion; a herm to signify the supremacy of the fertile earth; another Quetzalcoatl, or perhaps a passive Ares, I don’t know. Basically he was hot and looked Poussin-ist. Central to this quarter are the Hero Twins from the Popol vuh, archetypes so dear to my heart. Although they are brothers, I have in a personal way , embraced them as emblems of same sex affection. They are fiercely loyal to one another, acting as one; Hunahpu (on the left) going so far as to sacrifice himself, hence the blood and unearthly pallor. His brother Xbalanque helps to resurrect his fallen brother. I have returned to the Twins time and again, in paintings, puppets and prints. I predict they will be with me until I pass into the Underworld myself. A quick click in the side panel,on the tab “Hero Twins” will lead you to other examples.
Floating above on a very smart cloud is my favorite figure of this painting, the dashing floral-tatted Herakles. Herakles is every sissy boy’s hero, and I just could not resist including him. He surely would fight the fight of the just.
Herakles, plus a preliminary rendering.
Rounding out the painting in the last quarter I have various moon gods, non specific, just pre Christian. Next to them stands an Earth Father figure. A softer kinder answer to the excesses of patriarchy. He is horned in his affiliation with old truths, old gods, old ways. He also reflects my evolving reintroduction to the Church, with the pope reminding me of Christ’s magnificent message. This figure is a tribute to that compassionate god. He may also be an incarnation of the great Maize-god, sacrificed father of the Hero Twins and of humankind , Hun-Hunahpu. It is through his death, we are born. Sound familiar ?
Moon-gods, for you can never have too many!
The Christo-hun-Hunahpu figure.
If I had any residual uncertainty concerning this painting, it was silenced by this painting being accepted into an upcoming show ( along with my jumping jack figures from a recent post). I’m thrilled the well regarded juror Peter Mays included this painting.
The positive aspect of being unable to emotionally (post-critique) to paint for a few weeks was drawing. I’ve been drawing like mad, I’m sure I am boring social media with my progress, but I feel I am gaining confidence and ready to begin a series of small panel. I think of them as Illuminations, intimate, needing to be contemplated. I am discovering, at heart,that I am a religious painter. Unorthodox , unclear and ambiguous in my own faith, but I am compelled to make “icons”, depictions of universal archetypes. One of the new paintings will be of Jonah, this preliminary sketch, shows my intention.
That’s it for now, I will post this little painting, only 8 by 10″ when I am finished. Until them, be well.
4 thoughts on “Seizing Sanctimonium, a Primer”
Wow, there are so many stories here, thank you so much for posting detail photos, it’s so hard to appreciate something like this from a small Internet photo….the scapegoat really captures my heart, and what does that say…? But I also found myself really taken with a lot of these guys, the masked man holding the snake, the strange little blue-gray man with the double-forehead, and the circle of bitching birds (meant in both senses, actually–they are *quite* awesome, even if their behavior takes the opposite meaning, haha). And I will never think about Heracles the same way again 😀
But the man in the bird-like blue mask with flames from his chest and his hands may become a little bit of a talisman for me…. What a figure, what a force!
Of course the little blue man pulling a green fish-nose off his face then sends me rolling. I love it, love it, and there are so many characters to address!
Thank you my friend , adopt any character you like as a talisman ❤️👹
Well I’ve finally got some time to fully digest this post this week. When you first posted images of this painting Leonard I was just dumbfounded by its breadth and power, and I so appreciate you putting this post together to walk us round the details of this masterpiece. I wish I could see it in the flesh but the detail photos are great, I can really get a sense of these different characters. The deeply personal nature of the painting is very touching too, and it’s probably this that gives the image such presence for me, as well as your unique and beautiful iconography, compositional and colour skills. I LOVE that you see yourself as a religious painter, because of, rather in spite of your ambiguous and sometimes unclear beliefs. I think this makes the painting very human and accessible, even with the cast of strange and wonderful gods populating the drama. Its such a brilliant way of expressing that period of frustration and exasperation with aspects of the church you write about. And your drawings are becoming very special; that critique seems to have become something of a launch pad, even though it was bruising at the time, I can’t imagine a better response!
Love and best wishes from over the pond 😊
PS, I’m with Zoe regarding that Haracles
Please pardon my delay in getting back to, the Memorial Day weekend sucked up a lot of time and energy. Thank you for your appreciative words. Sometimes I fear I may reveal too much and perhaps I do, so hearing your supportive words meant a lot to me. I just delivered this painting (delivery is harrowing business) and was happy to see it safe and sound. Outside of the clutter of my studio i thought it looked good.
Happy you and Zoe like my boy Herakles!
love and gratitude from the other side,