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.
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.
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:
I will continue through with this alphabet and post upon its completion. For today, as it Sunday, household, not studio duties beckon.
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 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).
I am happy to say that I have finished my latest figure for an upcoming group show here in the Los Angeles with a theme of “Bad Girls &Outcasts”. I’ve made about five pieces for the gallerist to consider and this soft sculpture figure is my latest.
As I continue on this practice of “painting-sculptures” I find myself more and more drawn to the possibilities of figures in the round. The making of these figures being immensely gratifying.
This particular figure was directly inspired by a relief print I had made before crafting The Magdalene. Perhaps its gimmicky but that print will accompany the figure when she is presented to collectors.
As with much of my work one thing leads to another, this small print leading to another more complicated and I believe, more successful print, of the same subject.
It will also be presented at the gallery.
The Magdalene has been a figure of fascination since my boyhood, searching out her familiar red hair and raw tears in countless museum visits throughout my life.
Her renunciation of worldliness in order to be closer to the God who left her behind stabs my heart every time. I’m of course playing loose with history and church tradition, but that is the emotional effect, one of abject abandonment, that moves me so deeply . In many ways, she reminds me of Dido and her awful lament.
Of course, at least according to Church tradition, she is ultimately reunited with her Savior , often depicted ascending heavenwards garbed only in her anchorite-wild hair. This visual tradition of presenting The Magdalene as a Wild Woman is also extraordinarily interesting to me. She is in effect the corporeal equivalent of the divine other-wordly Blessed Virgin.
That old trope of Virgin and (Redeemed) Whore.
This resonates for me in that it allows exploration of the Old Gods and the New and how we , as a society , have tried to synthesize these elements in a cohesive and manageable way. I love both the BVM and The Magdalene, but personally, I feel closer to the latter.
Following are a few (unattributed) images of MM that I treasure.
(this is I believe, her reliquary , at least that what my what I noted)
Below is info concerning the show, if in LA, please visit.