A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus

A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus (2014) Oil on linen on board 20in. x 20in.

A Portrait of Stephen Dedalus (2014)
Oil on linen on board
20in. x 20in.

With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movements in her frank uplifted eyes.  It was too much for him.  He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips.  They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech;  and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.” (108)

With the sensuality of this kiss James Joyce closes the second chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The moment remains one of my favorites in all of literature.  Despite all the elements surrounding the young Stephen Dedalus…Catholic identity, Irish identity (both cultural and political), identity as the son of his father and so on…the first inkling of his true individual identity as a person, as Stephen Dedalus, arises as he “wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets” (106) wherein he meets “(a) young woman dressed in a long pink gown” (107)—a lady of the evening.  Joyce writes:  “In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself.” (107)  The maze, the labyrinth of life that must be navigated equates to all of those elements which would contribute to identity but which, in fact, confound an understanding of oneself, of life.  The elements make up the conceptual labyrinth that must be traversed.  He truly meets himself outside the realm of these conceptual and imposed realities only in an experience so intense that it overrides the rational function of the mind.  He begins to find himself in the act of sinning, in the act of undermining the ordained order of things.  He finds himself, ultimately, only when he sets himself against God Himself.  The logic of salvation history, the justice and injustice of political struggle, the custom and tradition imposed by nation and by family all seem as nothing as the young woman dressed in pink slips her tongue into his mouth.  His transgression eventually frees him to assume the central role of the divine himself, that of a creator…an artist.  At that point he no longer navigates the labyrinth, but he engineers labyrinths as a clever, perhaps divine, maker.  The meaning of Joyce’s epigraph taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses referencing Daedalus (“clever artificer”) to the novel becomes clear:  “And he applies his mind to obscure arts.” 

Wonder...Woman

Wonder...Women (2013)
Oil on linen on board
22in. x 33 3/4in.

In the previous essays addressing my paintings I have attempted to construct comprehensive narratives explaining the painting in their entirety. In this essay I have chosen to give only a hint toward a better understanding of the painting, “Wonder…Woman.” It is a consideration that figured greatly in the painting’s construction, conceptually and compositionally speaking—one with great implications for making and understanding contemporary art.

In an essay, “The Way to Language,” Martin Heidegger makes the following distinction with respect to the notion of signs. He writes: “The Greeks of the Classical Age know and understand the sign in terms of showing—the sign is shaped to show. Since Hellenistic times (the Stoa), the sign originates by a stipulation, as the instrument for a manner of designation by which man’s mind is reset and directed from one object to another object. Designation is no longer a showing in the sense of bringing something to light. The transformation of the sign from something that shows to something that designates has its roots in the change of the nature of truth.” “Wonder…Woman” attempts to address this distinction and to meditate on its implications.

The bottom portion of the composition speaks within the traditional idiom of trompe l’oeil painting, the painted objects sitting on top of the wall depicted in the painting, which in this mode of painting acts as the picture plane, and projecting into the viewer’s space. This portion of the painting signifies by means of designation. Meaning is generated through a relationship of the viewer to the projected or suggested objects and to the web of associations evoked by or added onto said objects due to cultural association or personal experience. The mind of the viewer desires to decipher the significance of this portion of the painting by accessing this web of associations. The things depicted do not show themselves, plain and simple, for what they are but act as guideposts along a conceptual journey leading to some sense of coherence.

The top portion of the composition functions quite differently. It is introduced to the viewer by means of the trompe l’oeil framing element. This element, however, creates a very different result. Instead of beginning and ending in that idiom, the tape frame acts as an introduction to a more traditional mode of realist painting wherein the tape frame acts as a window frame that defines the picture plane and ushers the viewer into a realm beyond itself. The frame delineates the entryway to a space beyond, and in that space hovers a simple cotton candy cloud in the blue expanse of the sky. The mind apprehends the elements of this scene quite differently from the scene below. The cloud shows itself to be itself, a cloud. The mind apprehends the cloud for what it is, a cloud. The experience, the showing is so powerful that all other mental functions cease. The mind does not pursue the web of associations as it did in the section below. The mind simply gazes and drinks in the willingness of the cloud to show itself. The act of showing paralyzes the discursive function of the mind by its sublime simplicity and presence. It experiences the cloud for its own sake. It wonders at the cloud. And from that wonder, as stated by Aristotle, is born all true philosophy.

Sub)liminal

Sub)liminal (2013)
Oil on linen on board
14 3/4in. x 30in.

In Chapter 3 (“Mathematical Discovery”) of his book, Science and Method, the early 20th century French mathematician, Henri Poincare, describes the mental processes and experiences he encountered during the act of discovering new mathematical forms and of thinking creatively in mathematics. He talks about the work of the unconscious mind and the existence of the subliminal ego and the mechanism of interaction between the unconscious mind and said subliminal ego whereby elements of the realm of the former might be brought forward through the mediation of the latter into the realm of the concrete as a solution to a problem or as an innovative, creative development in a given discipline. The painting, “Sub)liminal,” arose in relationship to these thoughts and to my exploration of them.

I found that the notion of the subliminal is rooted in the idea of the liminal—from the Latin word “limen,” meaning threshold. The realm of the threshold, a realm signifying the transition of crossing from here to there or of being on the way from one place to another while being in neither place, is a realm ruled by the god, Hermes. Hermes, as the messenger between gods and men, rules these zones of transition, boundary or marginality. Because of this domain the act of discovering the hidden realm of significance or meaning in texts or, in general, in reality is a domain governed by Hermes and, as a result, carries his name—hermeneutics.

In “Sub)liminal,” the comic character Flash, who by his attributes of speed and fluid mobility and by his costume characterized by winged boots and headgear, becomes the pop iteration of Hermes. He moves across the painting by navigating the spaces between the lines of the text submerged in the background. This hidden text is the same text as in the comic excerpt depicted in the painting, the very same one inhabited by the Flash himself. He moves through his own world both on the unconscious level and on the conscious level. He traverses the margin separating the two while inhabiting both as well. He functions in both realms with equal assurance, and so can bring the unconscious forward into the concretely conscious realm and can, likewise, add dimension to the concretely conscious by navigating its byways at the unconscious level.

Victory, brought to you by Nike

Victory, brought to you by Nike (2012)

oil on linen on board

24in. x 24in. 

I distinctly recall hearing, during my freshman year in college, the professor conducting my first survey art history course make reference to the Winged Victory of Samothrace.  Later, during that same lecture, I remember hearing him refer to the famed Louvre sculpture as the Nike of Samothrace.  The interchangeability of “winged victory” and “nike” remained with me from that moment forward.  I had worn Nike shoes and athletic apparel for years and had always thought the name a bit unusual; but, as a typical teenager from suburban Ohio, I had never given a second thought as to the name’s origin and significance.  As a result of that art history course I learned that the figure of Nike in Greek mythology personified victory.  Participants on the battlefield or sporting field invoked her with the hopes of her intercession on their behalf for a beneficial outcome…for victory.

Now, returned to suburban Ohio, I enjoy thinking about the implications about the name’s origin and significance more than I enjoy wearing the products so closely tied to the name and the associated winged swoosh that represents this name.  Essentially, the purchase and use of these products is the modern consumerist equivalent of an invocation to the Greek goddess herself.  Instead of presenting oneself at the Parthenon one instead presents oneself at the counter of any sporting goods store with product and credit card in hand.  The act of purchasing the product stamped with the name Nike…stamped with the branded symbol…is akin to an invocation to the goddess in hopes of success.  Purchase is the prayer that brings one into proximity with the divine.  The company’s use of the name states that by the quality of its product and by the use of said quality product one guarantees the divine blessing of victory.  I know that there are any numbers of cultural references to the new religion of consumption in our current society, and I pass no judgment in any fashion with regard to this concept.  I merely aim to bring to the forefront the very fact that there is a level of sophistication and implication in the marketing and branding of these products that relates not only to an understanding of contemporary human psychology but one that roots the need for such products in the existential dialogue central to the Western tradition…one that draws on the most primal elements of human psychology as old as that tradition itself.  That is…to win one must pay obeisance to the goddess, Victory.  Once upon a time that payment took the form of reverential invocations; now it is paid with interest and monthly minimums.

The inclusion of the pulp goddess, Wonder Woman, in the painting gives the discussion just put forward with regard to the branding implications of the name, Nike, a dual support—as a context of a goddess struggling for victory and as a similar branding proposition of a pop phenomenon given significance by association with a classical past.  The struggle against the odds…against the chains that bind…against the social structures that limit and define…and the destined victory…on the comic frontispiece resonate with the same implications as the use of the Nike name.  The significance of Wonder Woman…another part of throw-away…pop…contemporary culture… is only asserted in relationship to the tradition from which she was born and within which she is placed in the narrative text sections in the comic.  She gains weight…her character gains significance…as one surpassing the deeds and talents of those enthroned in the pantheon of the gods.  And while her superhero counterparts might not be enthroned on marble pedestals in front of Greek temples or rescued as culturally significant by the major museums of the world, Wonder Woman brands herself and her struggle as someone and something worthy of note because of the comparison of her nature to those figures of heroic tradition.  And regardless of how here-and-now she might be, she is also there-and-forever…a continuation into the most mundane present of the loftiness of Olympus.

Interior Castle

Interior Castle (2011)

Oil on linen on board

20in. x 20in.

One of my greatest interests in the enjoyment and production of art is the experience or encounter of that moment when the utterly profane and the truly profound meet–or even better, prove to be the very same thing. I have tried to create just such a moment in “Interior Castle,” thereby allowing that which would normally be disregarded or, more correctly, underestimated as juvenile become the portal to the most mature and significant of human experiences.

The title originates in the 1577 religious treatise on prayer and meditation written by Saint Teresa of Avila. In this treatise Teresa of Avila writes of the process of approaching God through the interior life of the soul as a movement through seven stages which she describes as mansions or rooms. The movement toward God…the movement through the mansions…is a movement inward…a movement deeper into the soul of the one on the journey and, therefore, a movement of more and more profound self-knowledge which will lead to a knowledge of the Divine found at the core of individual identity. In the painting, I have created this type of inward movement by creating seven distinct background spaces each contained within the other to the point that the final taped square forms a virtual frame of very intimate proportions around the one searching…in this case Superman. He is left with no room to move so as to be forced to be with himself.

I chose Superman for very specific reasons. First, I find that the mythology of ancient times…the gods and goddesses of Athens and Rome…and the mythology of medieval and Renaissance times…the saints and sinners of the Christian era…pose problems of access for the great majority of contemporary viewers due to either lack of basic familiarity or lack of resonance. So, instead, I chose from the pantheon of Pop mythology, selecting the Zeus or Christ of the Pop realm…Superman…as the means by which to tell the story. The reader, thereby, has access by the very fact that it is Superman. It just so happens that Superman inhabited a place very similar to an interior castle…a place where he could be profoundly and intimately himself…where he would not have to hide his real identity under the disguise of Clark Kent…the Fortress of Solitude. This connection brings to light the fact that, though Superman is a pulp hero crafted for the young, the psychology that resonates in his character and around him as a symbol is quite profound. Even though he is Superman…nearly invincible and blessed with an abundance of power and a correlated degree of self-confidence…his identity and all that comes with that identity like his connection to his past which forged that identity must remain hidden from public view. His greatest vulnerability is the exposure of his identity.

The ultimate meaning of the painting derives from the point where the “Interior Castle” and the Fortress of Solitude meet in a conceptual sense. Every individual desires to realize the fullness of his or her identity. Reality more often than not necessitates that this realization is expressed in its fullness in the depths of our own being…apart from the view of the overwhelming majority of others. This aspiration also manifests itself in the development of social units (friendships and family and physical spaces (the home, the artist’s studio, particular sacred spaces) where perfect self-knowledge and full self-expression might be realized and all trappings and costumes might be discarded. In the painting Superman represents the aspiration of every individual in contemporary popular culture to inhabit these physical and psychological spaces.

Unbound

Unbound (2008)

Oil on linen on board

24in. x 30in.

Since I started fifteen years ago there have been few days when I have regretted the decision to undertake the painting life. There have been few paintings that I have regretted beginning and finishing. I have had to make no compromises and have taken no shortcuts, so I have had a certain interior pride in the work that I have completed. That said, I feel no need to have my completed paintings around me. I enjoy conceiving of them. I enjoy executing said conception. I enjoy selling the completed objects as the commercial element supports the conception and production of the next paintings. I have none of my work hanging in my house or in my studio. “Unbound,” however, is a painting that I would gladly take back into my possession.

I first saw the cover image of Superman no. 11 at my local post office branch reproduced on a $0.39 self-adhesive stamp. The image made an impression on me. I am, however, not a copier of images but a painter of things. Things interest me, so I started a search into the manner by which I might acquire my own copy of Superman no. 11. The problem—that particular thing can be quite expensive. I found a copy of the original comic at an online auction for a reasonable price given that the thing itself had one of the lowest quality grades possible. The cover of the comic was wrinkled and torn, brittle, discolored and marked by the fingerprints of the individuals who had once upon a time turned its pages. I wanted the original thing itself and could afford that particular incarnation of the thing, so I purchased it. And it turned out to be the perfect thing precisely because of its myriad imperfections.

When I first saw the image on the stamp I was drawn immediately to the simplicity and power of the figure of Superman rending his chains. Immediately, the similarly titled dramatic works by both Aeschylus and Shelley came to mind…Prometheus Unbound. There, before me on the cover of a 20th century comic book reproduced on a stamp towered the Pop Prometheus, the superhuman champion of post-War American culture. Again, this Pop Prometheus would stand before me as I opened the container holding an original copy of Superman no. 11. But somehow, this second encounter was different.* While the image on the cover still spoke of superhuman power, of invulnerability and strength, of idealism and perfection, the substrate upon which this image was printed…the thing itself…told another story. It told the story of its seventy plus years of existence. It told a story of vulnerability…of frailty…of imperfection and the all-too harsh narrative of reality. When taken as a whole, I felt very much that the perfection that I admired and still saw resonating on that cover in the figure of Superman had all but faded…that the idealism captured by two teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio, in creating the superhero of superheroes had all but faded away. It seemed to me that the America that had prompted the creation of such a vision and with which said vision had resonated…that America had disappeared. Superman seemed much less imposing and faintly human. In painting “Unbound” I was painting the reality of that cover…the desire for all the ideals that it embodied to exist (a song of innocence) and the realization that it no longer or never really did (a song of experience). In thinking back on this and in writing this I have come to realize that this duality exists in some sense in all my paintings, for regardless of how real I might want them to be or how real they might appear to be, the paintings are simply artful illusions. And despite knowing that they are illusions, I still want to believe in them as real and true and worth my pursuit.

*It might seem silly to make the following comparison, but I am not above being thought silly in my observations. I have had a similar experience with Mondrian paintings. Their idealism and purity strike the viewer as awe-inspiring when viewed in a reproduction of some sort. The first time I saw one in person at MOMA, my experience was quite different. The perfect geometry was bisected by cracks in the paint. The crisp edges wobbled. The paintings exuded a humanity which I had gladly dismissed in the reproductions but gladly embraced while standing in front of the paintings themselves.