The theme of the great Harrowing of Hell, that period in time in which the Church seems to hesitate a bit, unsure of what really happened, that time after Christ sheds the mortal coil and isn’t seen for a few days. Where he is said to have descended into the Underworld as a triumphant New Adam and liberates lost and languishing souls- that, that moment , fascinates me.
It has for quite some time, as a youth I placed ink to paper in an attempt to imagine such a mythic moment ( the use of pomegranates as a decorative motif, seemed at the time, a brilliant allegory and subtle reference to Eurydice)
As the first(and latest) image attests, the theme still beguiles. Having only recently listened to George Saunder’s astonishing Lincoln in the Bardo (thank you Audible, now I must actually read it). I have been taken with the in-between time of death, redemption and the ambiguous souls left floundering; the Bardo as Saunders asserts. Death isn’t always with me in a dismal way, but it is endlessly fascinating. I don’t actually want to know for sure what the path ahead holds for me, but I am darn curious.
The first introduction to the theme of the Harrowing was Albrecht Dürer’s spectacular depiction of it (Dürer is a heartthrob figure for me in so many ways).
One can easily see Dürer’s influence on my work, going back to my teens. Clearly I stole from the Master in this youthful depiction of the Fallen Adam.
What I had failed to comprehend was what was meant by Hell. In time I came to realize not so much the eternal fires of a wrathful God, but a waiting station, the vague Limbo of my youthful Catholicism.
The theme has been explored countless times; the following, are a few favorites.
My own inspiration was more random, less planned; in my last studio move, an accidental composition made itself available to me. I suspect I will returning to theme again. Perhaps next time Christ will be more triumphant, more muscular in spirit, less hesitant. Although, truth be told, hesitancy seems a reasonable stance.
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.
As what had been a very delightful sanctuary becomes barren and littered with bubble wrap and pugs , I wanted to make one last post from my creative home of the last two years. Although eager to settle into larger digs, I will miss this place (particularly its excellent air-conditioning ).
This is proving to be a busy moment in my life. The movers arrive this Saturday and that evening I have an opening , Satan’s Ball, a perennial favorite -I have five pieces in that show. I may be pooped after the move but looking forward to being part of the festivities at Art Share LA. Then my solo show Fairyland July 8th. Frantic, daunting, exciting.
I was delighted to be notified that my drawing The Rape of Our Mother had been accepted into the Brand 45 Annual National Exhibition of Works on Paper. I was particularly excited because the juror was Leslie Jones, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA- my submissions were unmistakably drawings in that old fashioned way and I having her validation was important to me.
I had failed to mention that my painting Hadesville won 3rd Best of Exhibition at CEDARFEST 32, at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, CA.
I was beaming with a goofy grin.
The day after the award ceremony Facebook rather magically reminded me of what the painting looked like a year ago.
This “memory” popped up.
And a year later:
Packing has produced some novel still lives that I am eager to figure into compositions for new paintings, this being the most successful :
I’m at the end of my packing , I receive the keys to the new studio tomorrow morning. Much more to do but very eager to get back to work, be it stitching, drawing or painting, perhaps a relief print of two as well.
I finished this painting several weeks ago, but needed to step away from it a bit, literally and figuratively. It is a large painting and that is the direction I would like to take with my studio practice. This painting is in many ways the impetus for my moving studios. I’ve simply run out of room at my charming current studio.
But this has been a long journey, nearly two years, from bringing what had been a seemingly simple response to Christina Rossetti’s incredible poem of the same name, a simple pencil sketch, to this large canvas.
Before heading off for Philadelphia in the summer of 2015 I made this sketch, dashed it off really.
I was entering a summer program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and I hadn’t really any concept of how to focus my time. Materials needed to be shipped and I felt overwhelmed logistically. Plus I suffer emotionally from being separated from David and the pups.
I’ve posted before about the PAFA critique program, at times bitterly, but in hindsight I realize how unprepared for the experience I actually was. I now feel, a few years later, that I could approach the experience with more confidence and intentionality (is that a word??).
Perhaps some other summer.
Without a real game plan I decided pretty much on board the plane that Goblin Market was to be my next project for the summer. Part of what I had hoped for with the critique program was to loosen up mentally and creatively, and my little sketch , which I had so enjoyed drawing, would launch me in the right direction. Or so I hoped.
The following are some sequential images of its making.
I pause here because this is where strife began between me and the program director , she insisting that this was a finished work, and I insisting it wasn’t. I envisioned a more polished painting and she wished to “free” me from what she perceived were constraints . Again, in hindsight, I feel I could now express my intentions with more clarity, but at the time I felt crushed and confused.
I persevered but warily.
This image is where I left it at PAFA, unable to finish , I rolled it up, threw it on the plane and allowed it to languish in my studio. I tried avoiding it frankly. Then, in 2017 I decided I needed to face the painting once again.
I’ve tweaked it a bit since this next image, but I now believe it to be finished…for now.
I have a solo show coming up in July, its a small show ( Goblin Market will most likely make its debut), a gallery within a showroom I enjoy showing in. I am excited. It is my first solo show and in many ways it is a clarifying experience.
I’m grappling with what I want to say as an artist and as a person . What is my contribution in this dialogue of life. The window we are given is open ever so briefly, and as I feel I have only just recently entered into myself, I desire to do so fully.
My show will be called “Fairyland”. It is a concept I wish to explore in depth; I will be putting together more extensive proposals for other solo shows, so this show in July is the model.
The following is a revised statement for “Fairyland”:
“At this stage of my life, off center of a century, I am grappling with ways in which to express my “being-ness”. Unable to avoid the “who am I “ question any longer, I find myself ,as a visual artists reaching beyond my usual studio practice of oil painting into diverse disciplines including figures in the round.The figures are essentially dolls, and are fashioned by fully embracing the pre-conceived sissy element of this art. It is in this extension of my practice that I am exploring, at this late stage, my identity as a queer and terrified man; the specter of the pansy boy I was, being given new voice in my latest ongoing project “Fairyland”. It is in this new series of projects , where paint, needle and thread give expression and validation to a long suppressed self loathing.
The very name “Fairyland”, a word once delivered with bloody blows transcends beyond with a message of empathy, compassion. pride, and I hope , humor. Reclaiming the fairy has been empowering. The art I attempt to create is intended to express the spirit of furtive repression breaking free.”
I finished my latest figure last evening, what I had heretofore been calling simply a rag-doll, I am now calling a stuffed painting.
He is called The Wodewose.
Greenmen (andGreenwomen), The Green Knight, Wildmen and the archaic form, the Wodewose, fascinate me. They are at once pure of heart and spirit yet unbridled, carnal, the embodiment of our bestial selves. No wonder they appear so frequently in medieval marginalia; amidst sacred texts, randy hairy beastie-folk cavort and beguile.
I’ve turned to the theme multiple times. After reading Simon Armitage’s excellent translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” I was hooked on the theme, a wondrously fascinating archetype; ripe for seemingly endless re-interpretation.
This latest work is in the round and I was able to more fully develop his fleshy-ness ( and hairy-ness thanks to some found faux fur).
I was inspired to employ the Wodewose-Wildman archetype because of the recent celebration of Beltane on May 1st. Rebirth, renewal, the “pagan” appreciation of unbridled spring. My figure has two ways of presenting himself in order to more fully keep in the step with the seasons.
The first being flacid Winter Dormant:
And thesecond, lively Spring Renewal:
“The Wodewose” will be part of my contribution to “Satan’s Ball”, a group show at Art Share LA that promises to be an:
“unapologetic embrace of the dangers, demons, burdens and temptations that beckon to the more sinful angels of our nature”.
I’m going to close with a few random images of Wildfolk that never fail to delight me. As I leave for Pittsburgh tomorrow and rain is supposed to be in order, I’m looking forward to a wild rush of greenery (and perhaps a few fauns).
We live now in what was described recently in a New York Times article as “ the age of rage”. Outrage is in the air , folks are prickly (often justifiably so ) and tensions are palpably high; I have experienced this myself, having inadvertently caused discontent and expressing my own discontent. There was the recent brouhaha at the Whitney over the death portrait of Emmett Till painted by a white artist , pitchforks were raised and there were calls for the destruction of the work (so much attention was paid to this single painting that I almost failed to notice the rest of the collection -much of which I found addressing social issues effectively as well as being visually dazzling).
For more information follow this link: https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/ In a more pedestrian instance, an entire day on social media was recently focused upon a banal advertising commercial featuring an overhyped celebrity play-acting social activist all whilst peddling a soft drink . A valid point concerning the appropriation of social activism (in particular that of the Black Lives Movement) was made , the advertisement was swiftly pulled and social media moved on . But personally I hadn’t felt the level of outrage that was so vocally expressed in my FB feed. This may very well be the privilege of the white male but discovering that capitalism is coarse and ugly and will employ any marketable hashtag it thinks will sell one more bottle of toxic bubbly brown just doesn’t seem that surprising. Yet I know heretofore apolitical artists, myself included , who relentlessly employ hashtags that indicate a political engagement not previously expressed ; is this so called click bait or sincere outrage ? I have to frequently ask this question to myself . Within a few days the angry collective cloud had seemed to blow over and we were collectivity ( and appropriately) crushed by images of Syrians, men, women and children painfully gassed by their wantonly cruel dictator. But the issue will reemerge and I sincerely question appropriation, what exactly entails appropriation and in many situations what justifies the righteousness of ” identity politics”. I am determined to avoid the heated rhetoric of the far right but I have become increasingly aware of the painful divisiveness amongst people of goodwill even here in my own camp . For although I am not poor, nor am I traditionally disenfranchised, I do lack an advanced degree and I too have felt the sting of being shut down by the Judith Butler/Foucault-quoting-critical theorist-academic elites.
This past weekend I attended an artists talk at a local gallery . The well curated exhibition was self identified as queer (a term – and a hashtag – I have frequently employed in describing myself and my work). Even before I attended the discussion there was a minor social media outrage , accusation of racism freely bantered about concerning a perceived lack of diversity in the collection . These accusations seemed unfounded and hollow to me as the intent of the show, as clearly stated in the curators’ statement, was focused upon the Western male homoerotic gaze . And although much of the work was indeed depictions of pretty dewy-eyed white boys (as has so often been the case in mainstream gay culture ), there were in fact alternative images of desire and longing .
All that said , the point of the show was focused upon the male-to-male gaze , that fairly or not , has been undeniably inspired by the West , one need only look to the Greeks . The co- curator of this show , a thoughtful and well informed fellow , rightly pointed out that the homosexual art historian Johann Winckelmann was in fact writing love letters to Hellenistic works of art .
Gay men have historically been doing this ever since ; it is a driving force with my own work and the intention of the collection in question. Diversity in representation is of course important but the orthodox backlash of what is acceptable inspiration and the (over?) heated division generated is often stifling and ultimately may lead to self censorship. All that said , the self identified queerness of the show left me feeling alienated and questioned my own “appropriation ” of the word ( and hashtag ) ” queer”. From the panel discussion of queer artists , academics and activists , I was clearly not queer enough . There were open jokes skewering conventional mainstream gay men as IKEA shopping , happily and monogamously married homos settling into a presumably sexless existence with well tended gardens and adopted children ( or in my case adopted pups ) all whilst the “real” queers reveled unshackled ( or perhaps shackled ) in sex clubs, dungeons and public parks, “documenting” shenanigans heretofore kept out of public view .
This of course is an overstatement, but the body of work deemed queer (at least in this well curated collection) was in fact focused upon salacious images of dick . So much so , that this artist who is NOT afraid of the penis , felt uncomfortable, rather queasy and ultimately a bit bored . I also felt , once again , alone . Identify politics , in this case queer identified politics , can possess an orthodoxy of identity that I frequently cannot meet and once again I felt as if I were looking into a room ( in this case of attractive young men ) where I simply did not belong and was not welcome . This sense of isolation is familiar , personally and to many of us , no matter how we identity . Identity politics with its wonderful intentions of giving voice to the unvoiced can easily slip into the righteous orthodoxy of the oppressor. Well intentioned or not, so much anger and outrage can in fact be hurtful and alienating . While marching at the LA Women’s March I witnessed protestors of color taunting white suburban women with hostile placards mocking their (perceived) new found activism , questioning explicitly wether they would be found at the next BLM march. They have a valid point and it is perhaps a fair question to ask, but if I were those “nice white ladies”, I doubt very much I would attend.
Squelching well intentioned good will is unhelpful at best . In fact I rarely attend most activists events, even those addressing issues important to the LGBTQ community, POC, women’s issues or any other cause I have allegiance with, for the very reason that somehow , someway, my motivations and intentions are just not up to snuff or “pure” enough . In place of good humored camaraderie, I often encounter a competitive edge that is bordering upon open hostility , a frantic jostling as to who is more informed, more passionate and possessing the most fervent militant zeal . I find it all so daunting and alienating, frankly I’m ill suited to conflict and ill equipped to defend my own good intentions . Instead I retreat . I will however continue to diligently plod along, making my art that isn’t queer enough , righteous enough or identifiable enough . However I can say that the negative repercussions of what is acceptable inspiration and what is cultural appropriation has entered my creative process and my studio practice . Whilst recently brainstorming a concept, I was initially considering exploring ,once again , the archetype of the great and fearsomely attractive Mesoamerican war god Huitzlipochtli to embody the excesses of patriarchy.
But rather quickly I shifted course , not wishing to endure the accusatory arrows of appropriation, I looked to safer territory , the Western canon , specifically the ancient Greeks and Romans, and chose instead that granddaddy of patriarchy , Uranus .
And while Dead White Men have their very vocal critics, I for one can live with this focus , in fact I revel in it as western art, culture and tradition is in fact familiar and eternally thrilling . But it’s also somewhat limiting , instead of feeling free to draw upon any inspiration unfiltered, I feel now a need to question my every motivation. But until I feel better able to defend my intentions I will remain focused upon the Classical traditions of the West.
Recently I had a discussion with a friend, an art historian who’s opinion I hold in high regard. We were speaking of what constitutes inspiration and what is appropriation. I brought up Picasso, Cubism, the well documented influence of African masks upon his work and the subsequent masterpiece Les Demoiselles de Avignon. My friend quickly dismissed Picasso as caring not at all about African art. I felt more than a bit perplexed by this response as I’m not sure what is the appropriate level of appreciation an artist must have for art made outside of his or her own culture in order to find inspiration. Must we really be of a culture in order to draw upon it for appreciation , inspiration and joy ?
What I can say is , whether or not dear Pablo possessed the “appropriate” level of appreciation for African art or not , I am certainly happier living in a world with Cubism than without . And whether or not it was his intention, he introduces this queer little suburban boy from New Jersey -and much of the western world – to African art in a broad and general way . Was Picasso a scholar of African art , probably not , a tool of the Oppressor, certainly not , a great artist? Absolutely. Art ,made manifest by unfiltered inspiration in a seemingly less hostile age.
https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79766 The restrictions of outrage are increasingly more heated, more limiting and more intimidating. I am a quiet person, a shy person , averse to conflict and I will retreat into my hermitage and continue to make what is most likely insignificant art but I will do so without the specter of potential anger and criticism so easily provoked in this Age of Rage by simply avoiding certain inspiration deemed by the powers that be as not my own to draw upon.
Thankfully the Getty has an extraordinary collection of medieval illuminations, if you want me , you can find me there.
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!