Mandrakes, Fairyfellers and the search for Re-Enchantment

I haven’t posted in a bit, but my hands have been busy and so has my imagination. I’ve been making, clarifying and meditating upon the theme of Re-enchantment. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood was far from halcyon, more precisely grim in the lower case. Yet in spite of the anxious tension I was quite frequently in a state of wondrous enchantment. I had the good fortune to have a beguiling  and magical woods behind our suburban home. A solitary boy, I spent hours in quiet delight, there was simply so much to explore : salamanders, bullfrogs, carnivorous pitcher plants, skunk cabbage, blankets of velveteen moss, fungi galore and most delightfully sweet and wise box turtles. Truly, who needed humans when such fairies and imps kept you company?

That enchantment has slipped a bit in my golden years, I stumble upon it now and then, in the garden, with my animal friends, but most especially in my studio (my studio is my sanctuary) but if I were honest, a great deal of my time is spent in pursuits far from enchanting. 

Hence this interest in re-enchantment, in my work, in the studio and in my life. I am actively searching for the extraordinary in the quotidian, mindful and appreciative of the minor miracles of the day-to-day, the unfurling of the hairy leafed begonia, the topaz gold of a hornet, the diamond trail of the garden slug.  My seven year old self was well aware of these delights, I’m in the process of being reacquainted .

Undated photo of yours truly, seven? nine?

In that spirit, a new body of work is emerging, I’ve coined it as Fairyfellers (inspired by the fantastic Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd). Fairy-telling is my aim, visually expressing that wonder found in the gentler, enticing realm of toadstools, ferns and tadpoles.

The following are examples of some of my labors:

The Mandrake Titus, Defender Against Reality (he lost)
2020
Mixed fiber media
72 by 40 by 27 inches

Much of my time has been spent just sketching out re-enchantment, my studio journals are full of spontaneous bursts of wonder.

Fairyfellers, page from sketchbook
Concept sketch for The Mandrake Titus.
Initial pose for Titus, triumphant against Reality; I preferred him defeated. Truer.

This figure of the Mandrake Titus was inspired by my visit to the V&A, in particular the heraldic, near life-sized Dacre Beasts.

Two of the four Dacre Beasts (1507-25) at the V&A.

In particular the heraldic banners, I’m wild for banners in general, these beasties compelled me to design and stitch up my own.

Artist’s sketchbook
Detail: heraldic Mandrake shield.
Reverse view of the figure.

The Mandrake’s cape was inspired by a detail from my latest painting (previous post). Cross pollination of ideas , across mediums, is a common occurrence in my studio.

Further experiments in “stuffed paintings” resulted in this elfin trio of Fairyfellers: Rufus, Derrick and Seamus.

Studio shot of Rufus, Derrick and Seamus (and Robin Goodfellow).
Derrick and Rufus.
Rufus
Seamus
Derrick

I’ve also been busy working further upon paper-doll making (as fairyfeller an activity  as you can imagine).

Daisy Chain
2020
Mixed paper and fiber media
Approximate dimensions 96 by 51 inches
Concept sketch for Daisy Chain
Daisy Chain, detail
Daisy Chain, detail
Daisy Chain, detail

The last image of the daisy loin cloth betrays a bit of self censorship, increasingly I am re-evaluating how much nudity to portray. Not so much out of prudery, but I’ve heard myself described as a “penis artist”, and that isn’t my intention or interest. In this case I think the work is improved by the discretion, plus it is more playful; playfulness a key element of re-enchantment.

“Uncensored” detail

So far that is it in the Fairyfeller realm, more fairyfellers  are on the way. Right now however I have returned to painting , stitching is hard work, my fingers begin to ache and the fabric and needle pricks have caused some damage to my fingertips. So for now this fairyfeller is at the easel.

 

Embodied Realized

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 Flauberts “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 Brueghels 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?

Im 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 Anthonys 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.)

Leonard Greco
“The Temptations of St. Anthony of the Desert”
2018
oil on panel
18 by 36 inches

The installation centers upon the Anchorite’s Chair, from which numerous demons torture the saint from within and without.

Anchorite’s Chair
Anchorite’s Chair, reverse
Detail, Anchorite’s Chair

Numerous demons pester the troubled hermit.

Lilith
Pluton, Prince of Fire, Governor of the Region in Flames.
The Curia
Flora
The Foliated Trinitarian
The Houseboy
The Wodewose

The crucifix of the desert saint itself  isn’t immune from daemonic molestation.

The Anchorite’s Cross
Detail, Anchorite’s Cross
The Living Cross

Dear friend Dwora.
The artist with his little dog Speck.

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.

https://www.facebook.com/events/725419224526201/

I am also hosting a life drawing session March 24th, 4:45 through 7 pm, the gallery will be open prior to the life drawing should you be inclined to take a peek.

 

Fairyland Chaos

My scrap trunk, image by Ken Moffatt

In preparation for my solo exhibition at MOAH/Cedar https://www.lancastermoah.org/cedar-exhibitions  I am in that happy place, that point of total absorption with the task at hand. There is a superficial chaos to my studio at the moment, baskets and boxes spill over with thrift store yardage, flashy discarded costumes tumble upon the floor, even the dog beds are spotted with a gay confetti. But from this disorder spontaneity is flowing. I’ve set tasks at hand, a general to-do wish list in order for Fairyland to become a reality , but only used as a guideline. My best work is revealed to me through the process of making, as much as I may enjoy the planning.

There are those close friends who see through the madness, one such person is my fastidious , admirably precise and thoughtful friend Ken, who when visiting recently seemed taken with my large, unwieldy Victorian steamer trunk, crammed full of scraps of fabric and snippets of embroidery floss (I’ve saved every scrap of fabric from the Fairyland project, I’m either very clever or a hoarder). Ken is just the sort of friend an artist wishes for, seeing your intentions, he not only grasps your meaning but elaborates upon it. The notion of the “worthless”rag, the discarded snippet being a metaphor for a disposable humanity needed no explanation to my friend; he too sees the sacred in the forgotten, as witnessed by this dazzling kaleidoscope he created out of studio floor flotsam.

Scrap Kaleidoscope
Ken Moffatt

It is really beautiful.

With the floors littered with bundles of thrift store yardage, the work tables are increasingly crowded, I now have five tables in current usage. This charming 19th century illustration below (source unknown to me) delightfully (if romantically) captures the mood of my studio.

Source unknown to me, if you know, please send me a message.

And like the doll-making above, my figures are indeed emerging, not by Fairy hands alas.

“Pierrot”
Image by L.A. Art Documents
The artist and Robin Goodfellow

Concepts formerly inchoate are not taking form. I was recently asked by the museum for a Fairyland statement. Ideas and inspirations have been swimming about in the noggin for some time , but again, inchoate, not fully developed. It was time to put needle, pencil and brush aside and to pick up the quill.  This is my statement for Fairyland  (the formatting is peculiar for some reason) :

Leonard Greco

Fairyland
This recent body of work I’ve called Fairyland has developed a definite camp sensibility (not dissimilar to the theatrical confections of Cecil Beaton in the 1920’s).  Camp, having been described as the lie that tells the truth, is an innate language I have been reticent to explore until recently.
Perhaps internalized homophobia has left me hesitant to make work so boldly queer – in every sense of the word – making art so openly flamboyant.  Purposely stamped with informed wit and a wry knowing humor, this new work is first and foremost intended to visually delight and be taken seriously .

Among other things, it touches on the weighty tableau of the Temptation of St. Anthony of the Desert and the perilous trials of Herakles.  My aesthetic expression is influenced by my instinctive inclination to lighten somber somewhat ponderous existential themes with a gay touch (consciously using this word in both its current identity-laden fraught understanding and the anachronistic yet more delightful sense).  While the work possesses decidedly camp sensibilities it is never ironic as is so often the current fashion.  I find irony frequently cynical; my work is never cynical for no other reason than the inherent affection I hold for my motley crew of heroes, saints and sinners .
I draw indiscriminately upon diverse seemingly unrelated archetypes and themes from many sources, including Classical mythology, British folklore, Wagnerian operas and the biblical text of my Catholic youth, doing so in order to touch upon that which is culturally familiar to me, to others – and if we believe Jung – found deeply rooted as archetypes in our souls. These eternal themes provide me ample, seemingly endless, means of interpretation. As a person steeped in the Western tradition of literature and the visual arts, it is a rich fertile field I feel most comfortable in adopting.
The work presented at Fairyland are these familiar themes, explored many times over by countless artist; yet this time reimagined through a prism of my own. My play upon cultural themes hopefully adds a sentence or two to this ongoing cultural conversation.  Working in variety of mediums, and a fabulist by nature, it is my intention to create a theatrical spectacle that is peculiar, visually arresting and deeply personal.  Although the work is made solely for my own delight, I hope others find the work meaningful in some way.  I also hope visitors feel inspired to resist the siren call of selfies and pause instead, if only for a moment, as these works are visually dense and to add their own voice to this enriching and frequently neglected conversation.

With that, welcome to my Fairyland.

“The Bauble”
Element from Shoebox Projects residency, 2018
Private collection
My scrap trunk, image by Ken Moffatt

 

 

 

Parsifal, Swan Slayer, Holy Fool

“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: 

http://drdouglasthomas.com/DT_images/WRITING_Parsifal_As%20_Ritual_Theater.pdf

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.

Parsifal
2018
Mixed fiber, acrylic paint
approximately 5’4″ by 8′

In the making…

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”.

BUY!

With that I close, have a great week.

Playing with Paperdolls (& other works on paper)

I am preparing my annual entries to a works on paper show here in LA and in so doing focusing my studio time with that more ephemeral medium. In particular, paper dolls, which have long held an interest, harkening back to my fussy sissy boyhood. Fond , forbidden moments snipping away ; this drove my father to fury and violence ,so now, in revisiting this artform, I do so with emotion and gratitude.

My studio complex is an industrial space, and in the recycling bin can be found beautiful clean , rather low grade sheets of cardboard; all for the taking. And taking I have been doing. Large scale paper dolls, and larger planned, have occupied my work table. One of the problems I and others have encountered in working with paper-dolls , is a sense of durability. Inherently ephemeral, how does one strengthen such fragile material. This low grade cardboard (yet free!) has an unsightly edge that I find distracting and unfinished. My solution, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to employ yet another sissy art ( and equally infuriating to Pater) , stitchwork. By a simple stitch of embroidery floss , I strengthen and add an exciting line of color. I confess a certain pride in this, and stitching cardboard is immensely gratifying, not unlike popping those addictive sheets of packing bubbles. I recommend trying it to relieve stress.

My latest trio of paper-dolls are completed but more are planned, this grouping, the largest figure about 36 inches tall, is called The Siren & the Machiavels.

Leonard Greco
“The Siren & the Machiavels”
2018
Acrylic paint, cardboard, embroidery floss, feathers.

detail shots:

The Siren
The Machiavels

filtered, how does one resist?

In addition to my paper-doll making , I continue my daily drawing practice. In the same spirit of the nursery, like paper-dolls, another staple of childhood, the ornamental and instructive alphabet:

A is for Aladdin
B is for Baal
C is for Commedia (& Chinoserie)
D is for Death
E is for Egyptomania ( see last post)
F is for Faun ( & Flora)
G is for Greenman (& Ganymede & Griffin)

I will continue through with this alphabet and post upon its completion. For today, as it Sunday, household, not studio duties beckon.

Wishes for a good and creative week.

studio play

 

 

 

 

Memories of a Splendid Evening

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 .

Embodied:St.Anthony and the Desert of Tears

Work in progress shot of “Lilith the Mandrake”, Twenty Nine Palms, CA

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.

Ready to begin…

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:

“Our” little cottage, eager to return.
The house has running water, but a reminder…

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.