“Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool”
Parsifal, Richard Wagner
I am currently immersed in the operas of Richard Wagner, a full plunge into his world. Be it the mythic narratives he skillfully adapted to suit his vision; his very specific costume and set requirements ; or his peculiar relationship with his royal patron Ludwig II, all capture my fascination. Of his operas, Parsifal intrigues and delights me the most. I am not certain why, for I find passages of Tristan und Isolde so moving that I return to them time and again, and the Ring is so very exhilarating, yet on a quiet and personal level, Parsifal satisfies, validates and encourages me.
This opera is perplexing and confounding, Kundry one can spend hours pondering, Amfortas possesses a wound which we all can psychologically identify with. But Parsifal, the Pure Fool is an archetype too powerful to resist. I may simply delight in the synthesis of Christian and pagan archetypes and the universality of a redemptive figure such as Parsifal, unknowing, yet sanctified. But I believe there is more.
Whatever my attraction may be, I am very aware of my having only yet scratched the surface of its complexities. When I began this figure it was with mostly subliminal intentions, I dreamt of Parsifal vaguely, inchoate the inspiration. I discussed with my analyst my interest in the opera and the archetype of Parsifal. It turns out my analyst is not only a sensitive Jungian psychoanalyst but also a music scholar, his paper Wagner’s Parsifal as ritual theater: approaching the numinous unknown provides this insight:
“When Parsifal bursts upon the stage, he is an impulsive agent of death and can only articulate his un-knowingness. In a sense, he is the embodiment of the unconscious itself: void of knowledge or understanding, and unable to carry out the basic operations of human consciousness. Such an undeveloped psycho- logical state could easily arouse contempt in others, but Gurnemanz recognizes the innocence in Parsifal, and sees his potential to heal and transform the king and the entire established order of the land. So it is that the greatest transformations in our own lives do not emerge from the established order of the ego, but rather from our unconscious selves, our foolishness.”
link to Dr. Thomas’ paper, I heartily encourage a thorough reading:
I have much to think about concerning this work of Wagner, many recordings to listen to (currently the ’62 Hans Knappertsbusch Bayreuth recording and the ’81 Bayreuth production directed by Wolfgang Wagner). But for the most part the making of this latest “stuffed painting ” has been intuitive. What delights me is how in sync my instinctive intentions were to Wagner’s- truly, archetypes are universal, known to all who listen and feel.
Enough of words, now images:
The figure is nearly life sized at 5’4″ and possesses a 8″ train.
The train of Parsifal is ornamented with flowers to represent the final act, where in the words of Dr.Thomas “Parsifal fulfills the redemptive prophecy of the Grail by returning to the kingdom, where the land greens and blossoms at his arrival.” I confess I wasn’t aware of this symbolism consciously yet needle in hand I expressed it.
Speaking of needles, my recent re-reading of this wonderfully important book has only recommitted my dedication to “women’s work”.
With that I close, have a great week.
I am currently focusing upon an upcoming December residency with Shoebox Projects here in LA. The last month has been spent fashioning figures such as the comely fellows above. The figures, what I call Stuffed Paintings are essentially dolls, dolls play acting an existential tableaux that I have called Embodied. In the spirit of Neo-medievalism I am tempted to call the dolls Mummers. The latest Mummer is the red figure in the foreground.
Proserpina, Archdiablesse, Princess of Evil Spirits is typical of the Mummers I have in mind for my revamped Mystery Play centered upon the trials and tribulations of the early Desert Fathers, most particularly, St. Anthony (and his legion of troublesome demons). Proserpina is also a bit of a gender play as are most of the characters. Gender role and “appropriate” performance being explored and expanded upon.
With Embodied I am also eager to explore the concept of withdrawal from worldliness, so beloved by the early Desert Fathers yet so elusive, so prone to “failure”; I find myself, in this age of constant performance (social media, self-branding, creating content suitable to absurdly small attention spans) alluring and terrifying. I have struggled for the last few weeks to at the very least disconnect the Facebook app from my phone, but even that minuscule rejection of worldliness leaves me anxious and insecure. How did this happen, and what shall I do about it? Can balance be found?
For now I am focusing upon my desert tableaux, my Mummers and perhaps costumes, perhaps even performance of some sort. The following are a few of the Mummers thus far.
Pierott is perhaps the most emblematic of the Mummers. As a queer boy I was fascinated with the commedia del’arte , particular Pierott, his melancholy and chronic heartbreak was both familiar and comforting. I knew the gist of the comedys and I attempted to recreate them in the little shoestring theater I set up in our suburban basement. All went well with my spit-and-glue scenery and costumes, the problem being actors (and an audience). Given that I was the eldest of six siblings I thought recruiting my siblings would be a cinch. I was wrong, they, my brothers in particular, balked at the faggoty-ness of it all (my father agreed with this ) and after several very lame attempts, the show did NOT go on.
My brothers to this day still mockingly gripe about my directorial bossiness; and I still feel hurt.
Stuffed Mummers, mute and obedient, would have been a better solution.
Al of the figures begin life as a sketch, sometimes just a random thumbnail drawing.
I find further inspiration from multiple sources,such as this manuscript illumination.
The making of Embodied is in itself a reaction against set gender roles. The stitching, the quiet needlework , historically determined to be women’s work is for me deeply enjoyable. Yet when I go to the craft and sewing emporium I feel conspicuously male amidst a shop full of Glendale housewives. I catch myself (pitifully) trying to butch it up as I clutch my fistfuls of gaily colored embroidery floss and sparkly trims. Usually I chuckle at my own absurdity and proceed to the cashier. But the sewing, what may have been women’s work , is now mine as well.
I still have much to do, so much more stitching and painting and thinking and writing , yet I am determined to enjoy this time. To forgo elusive perfection and instead allow the process to unfold, hopefully revealing new directions , new intentions or solidifying ambiguity.
This fellow is based upon a strange tale told by one of the Desert Fathers. Locked in his desert cell, the unrelenting sun pulverizing his devotion, he suddenly, lustilly desired a cucumber. One can sympathize but the symbolism is amusing. That figure is next on the sewing table.
I also plan on a crucifix, this being the beginning of the Corpus.
Thanksgiving approaches and we are preparing for our own desert holiday in Joshua Tree , we’ve never been there, so I look forward to being inspired.
Adolf Loos first decried the use of ornament in 1908 in that loveliest (and ornamented) of cities, Vienna. His groundbreaking essay Ornament and Crime (I’ve also seen it entitled “Ornament is Crime”) is astonishing in its prophetic belief that ornament “dates” objects, creating a desire for new and seemingly more fashionable objects, dress , even homes. I actually adore Loos, he was a genius, his buildings are starkly luxurious, his aesthetic judgement without question.
Yet I’ve always taken issue with the wholesale rejection of ornament in the 20th century (sadly that seems the only Loosian dictate to have secured root). Be it fine art or the applied arts, there is a general suspicion if not loathing of the decorative.
So with that understanding, nearly three decades ago, I had the hare brained notion to start my “career” as an ornamentalist . It was physically demanding work, frequently unappreciated and until I moved to LA, not well compensated. It wasn’t until the recent recession that I decided to hang up that cap and pursue a long suppressed desire to be a REAL artist.
In my current incarnation as a studio painter I had thought I had moved away from that phase of my life; shunning baroque acanthus , intricate strap work and pretty blackamoors for something seemingly more substantive .
It is ironic that as an example of ornament’s criminality , Loos cited the “degeneracy” of Papuan full body tattooing, for the full body “tattooing” of my studio mannequin Massimo is what compelled me to dust off my folios of decorative designs.
I found myself rustily trying to remember how to create patterns and ornamental compositions, in the end it came back as easily as remembering to ride a bike. I find myself now interested in exploring ornament, how to synthesize it into work, attempting to transcend superficial attractiveness. I’m excited by the possibilities as ornament making is a skill I possess, it pours out of me. How do I use this ability in an interesting and compelling way? My studio work has always contained an element of the decorative so I’ll be curious to see how it progresses with committed intention.
The following are images taken from my vast collection of preparatory drawings.
This was my first big break, a huge job, close to two years to complete. I was so naive, underbid myself, underestimating the scope of the project. This massive overmantel ornament a mere sliver of the actual project.
Back to the here and now, I did finish the ornament for Massimo, and as Loos predicted it IS indeed degenerate!
Loos, in condemning “primitive” ornament, particularly full body application, could not have imagined a world in which a comely young man ( image discovered on internet search) would adorn himself so prettily and to great applause.
In my enthusiasm I’ve started a new piece, The Apotheosis of Herakles. It will be one of my faux tapestries, which in of itself allows me to play with fiber, sewing, domestic “feminine” craft, which along with ornament , has been traditionally eschewed- yet I’m drawn to both. The following is the beginning of the work.
Now back to it.
My current body of work that I have placed under the encompassing umbrella of Fairyland is an ongoing project, transforming itself almost daily. Ultimately it will be a large and complicated installation project involving diverse disciplines: painting, fiber art, printmaking and possibly some performance. A classic example of gesamtkunstwerk.
Ultimately given full expression at my 2019 solo show at MOAH-Cedar in Lancaster CA. I also have a month long residency with Shoebox Projects in December where I will further examine this magical place I call the land of fairies.
But in the meantime I am submitting Fairyland for possible solo shows. The following is my latest submission, and let me tell you applying for residencies or submitting for solo shows is on par with the Harrowing of Hell. Shaken and now nervous, I know I’ve done my best. Rejections have become a part of my reality, but in my heart I know this could be a pretty nifty show.
The following is what I presented.
Wish me luck.
Grappling with ways in which to express “being-ness”, I find myself reaching beyond my usual studio practice of painting into diverse disciplines including fiber-art figures . The figures are fashioned by fully embracing the pre-conceived “sissy” element of this art. Thus exploring my identity as a queer and terrified man, the series validates a long suppressed self loathing.
“Fairyland” an ongoing project, bears a title once a slur, now declaring a message of empathy, pride, and hopefully, humor. Embracing the fairy has been empowering ; the art created expressing a spirit of furtive repression breaking free.
The following is a “walk through” description of what I propose:
“One enters Fairyland through a swagged theatrical portal, embellished and festooned with luxurious passementerie, the ornaments fashioned from trashed rags, the “rich” cloth of stitched and patched recycled fabric, all evoking a glorious if tarnished sham splendor .
This initial dramatic entrance into the Wurdemann Room is not mere camp , it is a sincere appreciation for aesthetic visual redundancy, one that is deeply personal and I believe a trait familiar to the queer aesthetic, the need to elaborate, to further explain.
To offer alternative truths.
It is in the elaborations that I explore familiar cultural narratives through a queer prism, doing so in multiple mediums: stitched and painted fiber art , relief prints, book making, drawings, easel and wallpaintings .
Once entered, the visitor encounters a hushed dark room , it’s walls swaddled in lush fabric , faint chants heard muffled behind the plush. At the far end of the gallery an elaborate neo-baroque mirror hangs, confronting the pilgrim with a chilling memento mori. The mirror titled Reflection of a Harsh Super Ego is of mixed media and fiber arts and is flanked by near life sized fiber-art figures such as Daphne and Icarus which act as sentinels of life, death and transformation.
To ones right and left, floor to ceiling (faux) tapestries entitled Orpheus’ Lament and Eurydice’s Response (of painted and stitched un-stretched canvas), depict alternative tellings of the Orphic drama.
As the Wurdemann gallery is set as a private salon/wunderkammer with approximately 12-15 pieces, various paintings such as the large scale oil paintings Goblin Market and Hadesville will be interspersed amongst the “tapestries”.
In the center of the chamber, on an elaborately draped library table, one finds hand blocked , hand stitched books, opened for viewing. Further stitched and painted figurative ornaments also bedeck the table’s surface .
Sensory overload is the desired affect in this gesamtkunstwerk that I call Fairyland- this particular Fairy’s private retreat made public.”
I’ve just finished my latest “stuffed painting”, the term I use to describe my painted-mixed-media sculptural figures. This latest figure, my largest thus far (56 inches tall) employs a heavy use of embroidery and crude needlework. Like Herakles under Omphala’s gaze I turn to “women’s work”, however unlike the disgruntled enslaved hero, I relish the task.
The new work explores gender not only in its materiality but in “gender-fucking” the main character; my Daphne is no slim maiden but a hirsute fellow ripe in manhood yet broken and unable to save himself from a horrid fate.
My figure of Daphne was inspired (very loosely) by Bernini’s ravishing depiction of the attempted rape of the maiden Daphne by the libidinous Phoebus-Apollo. The way Bernini depicted her delicate fingers morphing terribly into branches has always struck me with horror (and admiration). For although the chaste Daphne pleads with her father,the river god Peneus to save her from the looming rape, his solution always seemed as cruel as her debasement. Patriarchy in action, the solution to male excess being born heavily by the victim.
At least Bernini’s vision of the terrible scene was breathtakingly beautiful.
I do not fool myself into thinking my own version in any way resembles the Baroque masterpiece, but I do hope I captured some of the pathos.
My desire for the work was to capture the pathos of his/her situation , the brutal transformation of supple gorgeous flesh into brittle bark. What horror Daphne experienced as the soul became encased and ultimately erased. Transformation into an olive tree is hardly a reward for virtue.
I also wanted to explore how gender factored into the beauty of Bernini’s depiction of a violent crime. Why are there so many ravishingly beautiful depictions of violence against women, art I know and love : the raping of Sabine women, of Europa, of lusty satyrs having their way with unconscious Maenads, and of course Daphne. Why is this acceptable and yet the depiction of male rape is not glorified by art; clearly not desired by the male gaze at large, aside from the homo-philic images of Ganymede.
And even with the images of Ganymede’s “abduction” , they frequently depict a slightly effeminate ephebe. Rembrandt goes so far to depict the rape by depicting Ganymede as a rather horrid infant pissing in fear. Its a nasty bit of work from an artist I have failed to appreciate. The painting seems to embody heteronormative bias against same sex affection.
But aside from the politics of the piece and my developing intentions, I wanted to create a work that pulled the heart (in a neo-Baroque sort of way). When I look into my Daphne’s face, I am moved to pity. I hope that is the general effect to the viewer at large.
The images below are progression shots, Daphne being the first piece made in my new studio, started close to my birthday , July 24th.
I have been hard at work on my contributions for the group show “Bad Girls & Outcasts” at Cactus Gallery . Earlier last year my friend, the talented Ulla Anobile had conceived of the theme and had invited me (and the marvelous Mavis Leahy) to participate. Initially it was to be the three of us, but given the interest in the theme ( perhaps in large part due to our current political climate ) , Bad Girls are all the rage and many fine artists are now participating. It should be a very exciting show, Cactus Gallery always gathers together diverse artists and I have no doubt this will be an exceptional group of makers.
For my part I’ve focused on a few of my favorite archetypes: the brazen femme fatale; the sinner/saint; the vengeful goddess and of course, witches. I worked in a variety of techniques: fiber art, painting, drawing, and relief printing. The following images are the results of my love affair with all girls bad, wonderful and misunderstood.
Happily, as I finished up yesterday, I did one final drawing of The Magdalene, as a study for personal reasons, not for the show. After posting my studio progress on Instagram I was pleasantly surprised to find that a collector for the drawing. I’m not yet ready to part with the drawing but I’m telling you, Bad Girls are all the rage!