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 14th, 3-6 pm; I will post updates closer to the date. But 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.

Playing with Dolls

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”
2017
Mixed media: thrift store fabric, recycled clothing, acrylic painted canvas, embroiderty floss, poly-fill.
48 by 21 by 10

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.

Early conceptual sketch for “Embodied”, 2016

 

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”
2017
Mixed media: recycled fabric, acrylic painted canvas, embroidery floss, poly-fill.
51 by 23 by 8 inches

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. 

“The Wodewose Quercus”
2017
Mixed media: recycled fabric, acrylic painted canvas, twigs, embroidery floss, fiber-fill.
54 by 31 by 8 inches

Al of the figures begin life as a sketch, sometimes just a random thumbnail drawing.

Sketch for “Quercus”

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.

Concept sketch for “Cucumber Boy”.

I also plan on a crucifix, this being the beginning of the Corpus.

Corpus with sketch

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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Daphne, the Apotheosis of.

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.

Detail of “Daphne”

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.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
“Apollo and Daphne”
1622-1625

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.

Leonard Greco
“Daphne”
2017
Mixed media: acrylic painted recycled rag, thread, twigs, embroidery floss, poly-fill.
56 by 33 by 9 inches

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.

The rape of Ganymede
*oil on canvas
*177 x 129 cm
*signed c.: Rembrandt. ft / 1635

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.

Concept drawing for “Daphne”.
All of my work starts in pencil.
The “painting” part of my “Stuffed Paintings”.
The new space.

A study in contrasts.