I was delighted yesterday when a Facebook friend noticed the similarity to the above image, a work in progress which I had posted to social media and to that of the Egyptian-Roman mummy portraits of Fayum (late 1st c. B.C. to approximately 3rd c. A.D.).
I have a keen fondness for Fayum paintings, one of the last links to the celebrated paintings of the Classical world. We have the frescoes of course, but painting, which was so well praised and documented in the Classical period, is for the most part available to us except in the mosaic reproductions found gracing the villas of Pompeii. The Fayum panel portraits are therefore even more precious a cherished reminder of a splendid tradition lost to time.
I’ve been conscious of the aesthetic similarities but hadn’t engaged with the likeness actively as a concept. But as my faces are attached to a stuffed fiber torso and my predecessors upon linen wrappings, there is an undeniable link. Prior to moving to Los Angeles, I hadn’t been that familiar withthe Fayum paintings, but the Getty Villa, once again, with its admirable Classical collection afforded an intimacy with these portraits of lost souls. The Getty Villa is a slice of heaven.
There is such freshness and vitality to these encaustic and tempera portraits that one feels you have met these folks before (here in LA, perhaps The Grove).
Frequently they are portraits imagined in the full bloom of youth.
There is in that, a similarity to my own work; an ode to comeliness and youth.
I haven’t yet seen a Fayum portrait that wasn’t expressive, each visage staring directly into your soul , in some cases swaddled in their shroud.
A few of my own “Fayum” ( Gayum ?) portraits. Pardon the silly pun, but who could resist?
I am going to close with this fanciful image of a discovery of a Fayum mummy. Although the Wikipedia source seems to disparage the accuracy of the depiction, its fancifulness is just what delights me. This imagined scene, with its loose-limbed cadaver and baroque sarcophagus is in keeping with my own vision.
My surname is Greco, my paternal grandfather fiercely proud of our rich heritage; clearly my roots are Italian, but in all honesty I’ve only just begun to recognize and appreciate the impact my cultural patrimony has had on me,as an artist and in many ways as a gay man.
I was inspired to reflect upon this existentially while submitting to a group show exploring and celebrating the Italian diaspora. I am the offspring of Calabrians who fled the poverty of their region for the fabled bounty of the New World. Setting sail in the teens of the early 20th century, my great grandmother came armed with a cheap gilded ring set with blue glass (which I now treasure ) and a feisty spirit. Incredibly small people and brown as a nut, my great-grandparents were frequently met with bigotry and prejudice.
Yet they persevered, settling in Trenton N.J., they were embraced by fellow immigrants (many from Naples) in the Italian American enclave known as Chambersburg (colloquially known as the ‘Burg). It is there that they opened water-ice parlors, manned grocery markets and in the twenties, my grandfather, as a boy, ran rum for the mob. Ultimately the family prospered enough to move to the suburbs, sadly leaving the cultural richness of the ‘Burg behind for the homogeneity of the NJ suburbs. My grandfather never felt like he quite fit in with his “white” neighbors, but the pride in his hard earned prosperity was palpable and difficult not to appreciate.
For me, as a sensitive queer boy, artist wanna-be, the suburbs were an aesthetic hell. Cultural deserts where “Mediterranean” evoked cheap flocked wall coverings and abominations upon inky velvet graced many a family room. My boyhood salvation was mass at the family church back in Chambersburg, Immaculate Conception, a 19th c. Gothic Revival pile, redolent in incense, ritual and gilt. It was heaven, and to this day I remember gazing up at its painted ceilings in wonder, and knowing one day, I too would be an artist. My grandfather assured me that was absolutely possible for Italians were especially gifted artists ( although he also insisted that the Irish were particularly gifted in depicting angelic hosts- where or how how he came to this opinion is something I still think about).
So now, in submitting to Italianitá, hosted by the Italian American Museum here in LA, I put to paper the influences my heritage has had on my art and my identity. This is what I came up with:
As a child of Italian-American descent (my paternal great-grandparents arriving from Calabria in the early 20th c.),I was raised in the culturally impoverished suburbs of NJ, yet it was my Italian roots that nurtured my aesthetic and acted as a balm to my artistic soul. Be it the street theater of Feast Days, the Madonna paraded and joyously lauded, the Festival of Lights, or the gilded grandeur of my parish church, it is clear to me that these influences decided my fate to be an artist.
In my work I explore the extremes of human existence through the presentation of archetypal figures undergoing transformation and experiencing salvation, rebirth and enlightenment; not unlike the art of Rome, be it sacred or profane. My paintings are self-contained narratives concerned with universal themes—birth, life and death— that stem from my personal experiences and passions. These include my love of classical mythology, Roman Catholic saints, the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, as well as the commedia del arte , low brow erotica and Surrealism.
As a queer artist my work frequently reflects a sensuality not unfamiliar to Italian art and culture. In this work I am searching to find the divine in the everyday, to show that all life, in all its incarnations is indeed sacred and beautiful. The works are metaphors that explore human relationships and interactions from myriad points of view and ultimately are about my understanding of my place in an ever-changing world.
My oil painting Seizing Sanctimonium is an allegorical homage to personally well loved artists such as Mantegna and Poussin and also a psychological exploration of my own spiritual and existential angst. Employing Renaissance compositional techniques such as one point perspective and borrowing freely from the drama of the Baroque stage, my intention was to evoke the tensions that arise between powers. In this instance, the Roman Church here being confronted by the Old Gods. This tension is palpable in ancient cities such as Rome and Mexico City, where timeless allegiances are everywhere, the old gods literally arising from the earth. Attempts to integrate the old ways into the orthodoxy of Christian faith creates a tension that is complicated, painful yet often dazzlingly beautiful. As a gay man, a artist and a Roman Catholic these tensions are personal, familiar, and frequently painful; conflicted by dictates of the Church and personal truths (embodied here by the Old Gods), it is in my desire to express this pain and to synthesize the diverse elements of my being. It is my hope to create work in my own voice, my own purpose and my own understanding of beauty.
My oil painting Hadesville is yet another homage to works of art that have influenced and inspired me. In this instance the Hellmouth warnings found in late Medieval and early Renaissance churches. These fantastical works are frequently the most inventive, adventurous, not to mention humorous works of art found in Christendom. Mostly attributed to anonymous artists, they continue to beguile , I am not alone in my appreciation. My painting Hadesville recalls such works, employing universal elements such as the aforementioned Hellmouth and symbolism that is personally meaningful.
In addition to the High Medieval, I also nod to Dante and his Divine Comedy with my own oddly disconcerting guides found in the upper left portion of the composition. Navigating the complexities of life, spirituality, sensuality (and the Underworld) was enthusiastically explored by the Italian masters of quill and brush,my humble aim is to add to that conversation.
Daphne is part of a new body of three dimensional work that I identify as Stuffed Paintings. These painted and stitched figures are intended to evoke the dramatic presence of Baroque theater and sculpture (most specifically, as in this case, Bernini). These pieces, Daphne included, frequently explore the power of transformation, sacrifice and redemption . Ovid’s Daphne,suffering divine injustice and paternal betrayal, ultimately finds “salvation” through metamorphosis (in her case, that quintessential symbol of Classical triumph and victory,the laurel bough).With that in mind, the theme of Daphne felt ripe for personal reinterpretation.
It is in this framework I wished to create my own response to Bernini’s ravishing marble masterpiece. In exploring the challenges presented in life, be it familial discord, conflicts with identity or romantic entanglements, my intention was to document the turmoil and anguish necessary to personal development. In so doing, I not only shift mediums from solid stone to pliant fabric, but I also swap gender, making this embroidered and painted allegory my own.
Lilith (the Mandrake) was nostalgically inspired by memories of my own youthful desire and identity struggle in the reign of disco.
By incorporating discarded elements of sartorial seduction current to the period (late 70’s early 80’s),the ubiquitous Izod shirts, which seemed mandatory for young gay men, the neon “New Wave” colors found at Fiorucci (and elsewhere) and the general “clone” aesthetic raging in NYC at the time, I tried to playfully examine the entanglements that were ahead of me.
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.
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.