That darn anchorite keeps following me around, this time not so much in the desert but in a lush, abundant landscape inspired by the German Romantic painter Jakob Phillip Hackert (1737-1807).
It wasn’t really my intention to once again return to Anthony and his desert travails, at least not yet (currently more immersed in fairylands, bogles, goblins and pixiefolk). But in my studio, kicking about and frankly in the way, was a practice landscape from a few years back. I’ve long admired German Romanticism, particularly the dramatic treatment of nature, most especially trees. In the hands of a master like Hackert, trees are major players, singular beings rich in personality. I had hoped to better understand how these landscapes/tree-scapes were constructed so I set about copying one of my favorites, Hackert’s Italian Landscape, 1778.
It was a gratifying experience, in no way was I able to match Hackert’s luminous original, but I did learn valuable lessons in light, perspective and composition.
But then I had a painting that I wasn’t very interested in, wasn’t original, wouldn’t/couldn’t show, not particularly “good” and yet frankly too sentimentally attached to to just chuck.
So I decided to make it my own by reworking it in my own way. I’ve seen artists self consciously take thrift store paintings (rather annoyingly, seems a bit stunt-ish), works they mockingly called kitsch, and adapt them to their generally ironic purposes. This sort of practice is close to being a kitsch cliche in its own right but it started the wheels turning .
I’m not an ironic artist, nor did I think my painting kitsch, although granted a rather poor copy, but I was excited to reimagine Hackert’s poetic composition, eager to populate his pretty world with my imps and daemons. In many ways old master Jakob acted (unwittingly) as my collaborator. This latest painting the happy result.
I hope he would have been pleased.
As my composition is visually dense in the Boschian/Bruegelian sense, details follow:
This is the Master’s take, as you can see it is quite lovely, my copy so paltry in comparison. The wisest path was re-spinning my inferior version in my own voice.
In the end I am pleased, I made room in storage, profited from past labors and have a new painting I like quite a bit.
My textile /mixed media installation piece Embodied: St. Anthony & the Desert of Tears is a major component of my solo show Fairyland which is now on exhibition at MOAH/Cedar. This body of work occupies an entire gallery and is on display until March 31st, 2019.
Those familiar with my work recognize that I have devoted considerable studio energy to the theme of the hermit Anthony and his desert trials. This particular work, by far my largest, was first realized in an inchoate state last year as part of residency at Shoebox Projects in Los Angeles. It has more fully developed into its present incarnation. Further development is most likely inevitable.
My concept for this show which is partly based upon Flaubert’s masterpiece of the same theme, and the myriad visual depictions of this beleaguered Desert Father not to mention my own trials and distracting temptations of life in the modern age is best expressed in the following artist statement:
Embodied:St.Anthony & the Desert Tears, my latest mixed media installation is inspired most significantly by Gustave Flaubert’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (1874). The richness of detail and illusion that Flaubert evokes almost suffocates the reader in its voluptuous beauty. Flaubert himself was inspired in great part by Brueghel’s own phantasmagoric depiction of the tormented hermit. I wish in some way to allude to that dizzying yet exhilarating experience.
As a young boy Flaubert witnessed a marionette performance of “The Mystery of St. Anthony”. From that point on, “St. Anthony accompanied Flaubert for twenty-five or thirty years”, as the philosopher Michel Foucault has written. Flaubert returned to the anchorite time and again until completing the work in 1872. This is not an easy read, dense, at times over-ripe, seemingly more chant than prose; Foucault describes the work as an “overcrowded bestiary” with “creatures of unnatural issue.”
It is this “overcrowded bestiary” I wish to evoke with Embodied,wishing to populate the tableaux with a parade of bewildering, complex “creatures of unnatural issue”. These hybrid embodied beings represent not simply base impulses but our own deep struggle to live a fully expressed life. For when I tackle such fraught topics as sin, temptation and redemption, I am looking beyond the typical biblically inspired admonition (such as Lust or the other Seven Deadlies). I am more interested in the quotidian, seemingly insignificant distractions that prevent us from embodying our truest selves. In essence, what interferes with your being authentic? What is your demon? Who, what shadows your path?
I’m particularly interested in exploring how the tools of modernity – social media, the self-commodifaction through “branding” oneself, the pursuit of relevancy— all hinder full true self-expression, perhaps even censoring it or rendering it mute. Foucault describes Anthony’s temptations as “…false gods resembling the true God….” I argue that false gods lurk in the inky alleyways of a frenetic and rapacious contemporary society.
The mystic Thomas Merton in discussing the Desert Fathers insists, “they did not reject society with proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men”, but instead were seeking the fullest expression of their purpose. Throughout our lives we are given signs which point us (or call us) in the direction of our authentic purpose, so as Merton reminds us: “…whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe”.
I will do that “thing”, clumsily, distractingly, awkwardly, but like Anthony, sincerely and with purpose.
Numerous earlier incarnations on the theme, such as this 2018 oil painting of the troubled saint, play upon this intention and communicate directly with the installation Embodied:St. Anthony & the Desert of Tears.
The following images taken at the March 23rd 2019 MOAH/Cedar opening hopefully substantiate that claim.
(Note, all gallery courtesy of Shoebox PR.)
The installation centers upon the Anchorite’s Chair, from which numerous demons torture the saint from within and without.
Numerous demons pester the troubled hermit.
The crucifix of the desert saint itself isn’t immune from daemonic molestation.
To see Embodied embodied was deeply gratifying, if you haven’t yet had the opportunity to see Fairyland it does run through March 31st with an artist talk on the 30th.
Last evening’s reception for Embodied:St.Anthony & the Desert of Tears was gratifying in many ways . Most especially in the support shown by my wonderful friends and fellow artists . The art community in LA is a generous one , I am exceedingly grateful for that .
But also in where this residency has brought me , I feel as if I am on a landing , creatively speaking , and about to ascend with a stronger conviction and more focused intention.
I thank Kristine Schomaker and her ShoeboxProjects, which offered this residency to me . I also thank Kristine for these marvelous images . Amidst the hubbub I didn’t take one image . So again, thanks Kristine!
With that said , let the mayhem be fondly remembered.
I love this image of Kristine, really working my hat .
My friend , the excellent photographer Stephen Levey took these images , I particularly like the one with my talented friend Bibi Davidson and our demonic love child .
Our wonderful friend Jodi Bonassi , another great artist , was working the hat as well !
Always lovely to see my friend Randi
And miraculously , our dear Malka Nevidi , yet another amazing artist, arrived near closing . Thank goodness. But all good things must end , we’ve packed it all away , down to the crisp white walls , ready for new inspiration. Filled with much gratitude… and now, a head cold .
Today is the official first day of my residency with Shoebox Projects, here in Los Angeles. The residency is a little over a month allowing for the holiday interruptions. The unveiling of the work will be Saturday January 13th, 3-6 pm; link to the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1994368064109763/.
As I embark on this exciting opportunity I wanted to first clarify my thoughts, the following is my statement of intent for this installation which I call Embodied: St. Anthony and the Desert of Tears.
Embodied: St Anthony and the Desert of Tears
The anchorite’s cave , the hermit’s lean-to and the studio of an artist are ideally a place of solitude, reflection and self discovery.A place to contemplate upon the divine , be it the godhead or the muse .
Yet this desired solitude is frequently tormented by demons, external and internal, distracting temptations seductively masquerading as duties or obligations, understandable commitments such as those to family, health and home are inevitable. These realities must be tended to with balance and discipline.
Yet more pervasive is the insidious influence of social media and the subtle influences of “community”, the chattering world , which frequently, at least for this seeker, stirs up emotions of self doubt , insecurity, timidity , and a call to conformity. Even within the sacred space of the studio one can be tormented by an almost adolescent peer pressure, the hive mind buzzing about can be deafening . Community, particularly amongst artists, is currently highly valued , perhaps a reaction against Individualism. But why ? Haven’t we the spark within? For although I treasure the fellowship there is also a very palpable anxiety ( again exacerbated by social media ) to compare and judge oneself , frequently unfavorably, against ones peers.
My inspiration for this mixed media installation is drawn upon the well known narrative of the Early Church Father , St Antony of the Desert and the hermit’s own struggle with demons. It is in the tradition of depicting Anthony ‘s demons playfully that I wish to explore my own struggles.
Oscar Wilde famously said that an artist’s duty is to make art “…for his own pleasure, and has never asked the public what they wanted …”.
This is an extreme, perhaps arrogant , isolationist stance yet if one recalls ones childhood , mud pies were made for the pure delight of the making. It is in this making , unfettered by opinion , second guessing or concern for that ever-elusive societal “relevance” that the artist must center their practice . For it is my belief that is where true art is found .
This anchorite hopes to do just that during this residency.
We were fortunate this Thanksgiving break to spend the holiday in divine desert isolation (Twenty Nine Palms, CA), renting a small cabin, free of distraction, bathed in blissful silence. It was much needed balm for us both and has provided inspiration for this project. A few images follows:
The property has a wonderful abandoned cottage, it provided added inspiration. Trying to incorporate some of the images into Embodied.
In reading the narratives of the Early Church Fathers one is struck by repeated themes: temptations of lust, boredom, the perils of isolation. One recurring motif that I found particularly amusing was the desert desire for cucumbers. A reasonable desire perhaps, but the Freudian associations were hard to dismiss. Surprisingly, adjacent to our rented cottage, stood a date farm planted upon an oasis. The laborers had tapped into the precious water and planted gorgeous pumpkins and squash; they seemed a fitting reference to the hermit’s cucumber.
Eager to begin to assemble my multiple elements. I have a sense of intention, but as with all plans (and art making), change is inevitable. Please wish me luck.
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.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for me, I’m trying now, not very successfully, to collect myself. Between the move into a new space, multiple shows and now an inferno has set upon the City of Angels, I find myself quite discombobulated. Now that I have a semblance of internet (thank you Hotspot, whatever the hell that is), I feel less adrift.
To procrastinate, I’m enclosing a few images from recent shows, “Satan’s Ball” at Art Share LA and more recently, this last weekend’s “Fairyland”, my solo show at Ave. 50 Gallery.
A pleasant surprise was meeting the photographer Stephen Levey who took some excellent images of my work. I was quite delighted to see how he captured the moodiness of my figures.
I’ve tried for some time to capture my first “Temptation of St. Anthony of the Desert”, Stephen, seemingly effortlessly, snapped a great image.
The preparation for the opening of “Fairyland” was daunting, with packing up the old studio, moving into the new and all the details that go into a transfer from one place to another, I was rattled. Particularly grateful to Dan Fernandez who handled my installation expertly.
In the end it all came together and the opening was just splendid…hot as Hadesville , but splendid.
I was so touched by how many of my friends stopped in, in spite of a plethora of competing openings, in spite of the gallery’s rather isolated situation and in spite of the terrible heat. In spite of that , the support was thrilling. Thank you my friends, friends I’ve known for awhile and to the new ones I’ve just met.
Art making is isolated work but it is the community one finds that encourages and delights. I’m pretty delighted at the moment…in spite of fierce Apollo.