Ellis Wilson had more notoriety after his death than he did during his life, as a replica of this painting hung above the Cosby’s mantel in the 1980s hit series. The painting resides at Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. Wilson traveled to Haiti in the early 1950s and noticed that from a distance, people become a mass of darkness. After this visit, he began painting figures from a distance flat and featureless.
Black dress first worn by my sister
moist with my tears—following
bouquet of pink roses.
Lindsey Thäden is the most recent winner of New York's 2016 #PoetweetNYC contest. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Philadelphia-based Apeiron Review, eleven40seven, New York Metro, Passages North and Vending Machine Press, which is e-published from Sydney, Australia.
The Crucifixion of Christ
Stand back or you will miss its monumental gravity as it looms over you with the stark modernity of a Rothko. Francisco de Zurbarán’s seventeenth century painting of the crucifixion of Christ dominates the walls with monolithic austerity, a sombre narrative of light and shadow. Not the staged theatrical chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, but one of religious fervor, distilled into restrained emotion. The source of light is unknown, but omnipresent like God.
The pale body of Christ, ribcage and musculature protruding with naturalistic accuracy, hangs limp and passive. Only the flesh is dead, all else is life, nuanced, subdued. The cool umber of the wood sustains the bloodless body, then melts to the ground in a column of minimal brushwork. Bright white drapery winds around the slain lamb like a matador’s cape. The large round nails upstage the pierced wounds with iron dignity. From the painter’s brush, the grit of the soul envelopes the cross with the dense blackness of lava.
At the foot of the cross on a small, transgressive swash of white paint, Zurbarán signs his name with chaotic discretion.
From the towers of Seville to the stones of Golgotha, Zurbarán’s giant still life of the crucifixion is a tribute to the sobriety of death and the triumph of sacrifice. No pain, no pathos, no lament. The deed is done. The aftermath overwhelms us with soothing solemnity.
Jocelyn Ajami is an award winning painter, independent documentary filmmaker, and writer. She is the founder of Gypsy Heart Productions which specializes in documentary projects related to cultural awareness and social justice. Among her award winning films are Gypsy Heart, Oasis of Peace and Queen of the Gypsies.
As a leader with a global perspective, Jocelyn has been the recipient of major grants from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, The Leadership Foundation, International Women's Forum, and the Goethe Institute. Most recently, Jocelyn received first prize for her poem, "Chicago Burning" from Poets and Patrons, Chicago. Born in Caracas, Venezuela and educated in Italy and France, Jocelyn speaks five languages. She works and lives in Chicago, USA.
The Photos Were Like Paintings
The envelope of clouds had broken and the sun lit upon me. I pressed into the pink plaster wall and sheltered in a strip of shade. The wall was a pleasing pink, a pale rose pink. For an hour I had been inching slowly forward toward the ticket booth. There was still a long line of people in front of me. I was tired of standing. I was hot. I was bored. Only later did I learn I had been pressing against the outer wall of Claude Monet’s house.
I had long craved a pilgrimage to Monet’s gardens at Giverny. I was an American student in France in ‘74 when first I floated in his murals of water lilies that fill the walls of L’Orangerie in Paris. I had gone back through the years for other plunges into those water garden panoramas of no horizon, those planes of purple, blue, and green paint, the reflections of unseen trees on the surface of the pond. But I had never made the trek to Giverny.
This time in Paris, in 2016, I was with my husband, David. A warm day in May beckoned us out of the city. I would finally weave my traveler’s dream of the gardens. But I was to be let down. We had not accounted for the three-day weekend in France and the crowds of fellow visitors who, like us, had judged the day as perfect for a visit to the magic of Giverny.
Monet’s gardens—the home of the water lily pond—had begun as a simple idea: “. . . I should like to grow some flowers in order to be able to paint in bad weather as well,” he wrote his agent in 1883 not long after moving to Giverny. The gardens became his obsession, his muse. He lavished great chunks of time on plotting and planning. The pond, dug in 1893, was tended by a gardener whose only job was to maintain the lilies as Monet desired them, to remove dried leaves, fight the water rats who ate the bulbs.
Monet worked and reworked the gardens to reach the reality of his vision. Then he translated that vision using paint and canvas. Often dissatisfied, he destroyed hundreds of paintings. Is this not the crux of the artist’s challenge? For vision to survive execution?
The crowds of our fellow visitors at the entrance carried over into the gardens. David and I shuffled along within clots of people following the roped paths between flower beds. Keep moving. Avoid bumping other bodies. Try not to step on someone’s foot. Try not to step into someone else’s photograph (impossible!). I was always in the way of others or was ungraciously pissed off because they were in my way.
I saw, yes, the pale blue forget-me-nots below tulips of cabernet red, the frilly blooms of lavender iris amid blades of green leaves, the clumps of Persian red pansies with yellow centers. Yes, I took in the heavy drape of purple wisteria hanging from the pond’s Japanese bridge, reflections of encircling willow trees, the unbloomed buds of the water lilies. But for me the gardens were fragmented and shattered by the crowds. It was as if I were seeing the broken shards of a stained glass window.
We took the train back to Paris. The realm I had sought remained undreamed.
Back home in Seattle I glanced at David’s computer screen one evening as he edited his photos from Giverny. I was instantly snagged.
David had searched every scene for the best shot. He had reached beyond the jostle of bodies and slipped past the oppression I had felt. David has the artist’s eye and he had been in the garden of an artist. He had captured Monet’s carefully crafted layers of flowers, apple trees, pink house, and green hills. His framing, his edits nipped and cut most of the people. In his long shot of the pond the eye is pulled toward the dark green rounds of lily leaves, the surface reflections of trees, clouds, and sky, the oranges and reds of azaleas around the edges. The mind barely registers the people in coats of yellow, blue, brown, and red that speckle gaps in the foliage.
David’s photos were like paintings. In them I found the Giverny I had craved.
Nancy L. Penrose is a writer based in Seattle. Her essays have been published in Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee Literary Review; 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction; Drash: Northwest Mosaic; the collections of Travelers’ Tales; and the anthology Burning Bright: Passager Celebrates 21 Years. Details may be found at www.plumerose.net.
The Wind From the Sea
The sheer window curtain bellies like a pregnant Muslim woman in her dupatta, filling with secret life from beyond the horizon. Fine incisions written as tatters say the sea has been restless for ages. The tea kettle outside the painting purrs today will start out calm. It is enough to know these things without having to say them. Wyeth’s painting holds them before us. Beyond the curtain is a road leading to the sea, to whales and fishermen with sore red hands. And to you, and to me.
Craig Brandis lives and writes in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Books absorb us, draw us inward— even when we’re most in public. The great photographer André Kertész made a lifelong project of exploring that paradox. Between 1915 and the 1970s, he travelled the world, snapping candid photos of people with their books, their magazines, and the occasional newspaper. On rooftops, behind stage doors, on trains, in parks, in bars and shops, bent over trash bins, tucked into alcoves; black and white; male and female; priest and rabbi and nun; rich and poor — wherever he found readers, he recorded them in the act. Reading is the great leveller, the great lifter, his images seem to suggest. In the republic of books, we are all equal.
There is something almost unbearably poignant about these photographs today. Yet, what we sense when we look at them is more than wistfulness for an imagined past, more than mere nostalgia. Shot from unexpected angles, they conceal complexities; often we have to work to discern a subject within the frame. The experience mimics the act portrayed. In these images, we don’t simply witness someone reading; instead, we read someone reading. So what we feel when we look at them is something akin to deep reading’s deep engagement.
Only a lover of books could take such photographs. Kertész could hardly have been blind to the irony of that. For it was brilliant photographers like him who were rendering text increasingly redundant in his day. “Your pictures talk too much,” said an editor at Life, in rejecting some of his images. Kertész’s photos were so expressive, so complete in themselves that they left nothing for a journalist to say.
Some of his photographs seem to acknowledge as much, and to draw the implications even further. One in particular, taken in his study in 1960, is a kind of oblique self-portrait. Shot from a sofa or chair on one side of the room, it takes as its subject a wall of neatly arranged shelves. In the foreground we can see the photographer’s bare feet.
Those feet by then had transported Kertész from the ticker-taped floors of the Budapest stock exchange, where his family had sent him to work as a young man, to the absinthe-scented cafés and paint splattered artists’ studios of Montparnasse. Later still they had explored the fire escapes, rooftops, and windowsills of New York. At the same time, they recall the dirty, naked feet of the young boys poring over a book in one of his earliest photographs. At sixty-six, he had not forgotten his beginnings.
The objects on his shelves evoke a full and cultured life. Books. Magazines and journals stacked in piles. 19th-century landscapes, dark and moody. One of his more surrealist works, from the Distortions series, hangs in the upper right; below it a glass-encased clock indicates the passage of time. A mirror reflects the artist back to himself; a lamp casts light on the portrait of a woman, possibly Elizabeth, his beloved wife. And amid all this evidence of a refined and cultivated sensibility squats a television. Its screen is blank. Above it dangles an empty picture frame.
It is tempting to see that television as an evil dwarf in a tale of loss and bitter discouragement. By then, Kertész had lived in the United States for more than twenty years, and he had failed to achieve any recognition as an artist. Too late, too late, this image seems to say. As photography had overtaken books, so television might overpower photography. And the world would turn, increasingly, to flat and featureless screens for instruction and entertainment.
Kertész didn’t live to see the spread of computers and Kindles and smartphones, and it’s difficult to know what he would have made of them. For if he sometimes seemed to dread the march of technology, he also embraced its advances; one of the earliest photographers to adopt a 35 mm camera, in his old age he also experimented with the latest Polaroid. What’s more, as the father of street photography, he was always eager to take pictures of ordinary people going about their lives. In fact, if he were still at work today, instead of readers, he might be snapping candid shots of men and women leaning over their laptops or fixated on their smartphones. But, “I do not document anything; I always give an interpretation,” he once remarked. So I doubt if his laptop series would have anything to say about stillness or deep engagement.
Then again, better than anyone, Kertész understood that we live in a liminal time. Screens may seem ascendant, yet books and words can still command a central place. A later photo from his study series illustrates. Taken in 1969, shot from the same sofa or chair as the 1960 picture, it depicts the identical set of shelves; a viewer will also recognize many of the same books and pictures and treasured objects, along with the same bare feet, crossed in almost the same pose.
But that is where the similarities end. In this photo, to the right we see the table where Kertész does some of his work, along with a tripod. In this photo, the photographer’s own photo, his Distortion, occupies a more central place on the shelves. And in this photo, there is no clock, no television, and no empty, dangling frame. Instead, the artist’s neatly organized books and papers dominate the scene. By then, Kertész had finally achieved the American recognition he had long desired, and I like to think that with revived reputation came renewed hope in the rich hermeneutical tradition from which he sprang, and refreshed belief in the power of the word and the power of artful arrangement.
He must have sat on that couch or chaise almost daily for decades, and almost always with a book. But he did not take a photo every time. What, then, prompted this particular self-portrait? We’ll never know. Perhaps a shaft of sun fell just so across his page, distracting him; perhaps a memory, called up by the story he was reading, momentarily tugged his attention away from the page.
Imagine. At seventy-five, he is white-haired, balding, age-spotted, mole-scattered—marked by time, just as his room is marked by time—and the feet stretching out before him ache from his morning’s walk. Outside, in Washington Square, the sounds of a guitar drift up towards the window; closer, in the kitchen, Elizabeth shuts a cupboard door and then begins to hum. He thinks about their evening meal—baked fish, perhaps, with a simple salad and baguette—something light and fresh to mark the season. Soon, he’ll open a dry Riesling and pour them each a glass. From their small round table, they’ll see the trees in the square below and the crisscrossed pattern of the pathways.
Before the stock exchange, before the war, before photography found him, he used to fish the Danube. That was in childhood. Sun glanced off the water, making him squint. Drifting, dreaming, sometimes he’d wait for hours for a tug against the line. He laid the catch inside his uncle’s wicker basket. The larger carp would thrash against its reed-lined sides.
The most valuable things in a life are a man’s memories. And they are priceless.
He looks at his familiar shelves. Perhaps he recalls his father’s bookshop, back in Hungary—the country he fled, first in pursuit of his art, and later, to escape Nazi persecution.
The moment always dictates in my work. So much history embedded in those carefully arranged lines and planes. So much life within those assembled pages. So much life in all pages. The novel in his lap, for instance. Words, like light, bracketing moments; words, like light, calling forth worlds.
Everything is a subject. Every subject has a rhythm. His hand closes around the camera’s familiar weight. The viewfinder frames the scene. Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.
The shutter clicks.
I write with light.
He sets his camera down. Then he turns back to his book.
Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, selected by 49th Shelf and Amazon.ca as one of 100 Canadian books to read in a lifetime. Her writing has won a National Magazine Award (Canada), and has appeared in The Bellingham Review, The L.A. Review of Books, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and the Utne Reader, and in anthologies including Best Canadian Essays, 2016 and In Fine Form, 2nd Edition.
Ivan Albright, to Whom I Keep Returning
Ivan Albright, 1897- 1983, was primarily a painter, but he also kept detailed journals of his work and wrote poetry as well. His work appalled many and fascinated many more. He wasn’t interested in conveying familiar forms or notions of beauty. A lengthy essay on Albright by Courtney Graham Donnell begins with a poem of the artist (after which the essay takes its title) in which Albright reports: “A painter am I / Of all things / An artist who sees / the door and chair / And sees on the smooth things a flaw there / and sees on the round things a hollow there / And colors are not just colors to him…” Later in the same essay, Donnell quotes Albright revealing: “If I stir, [objects] stir. If I stand arrested, they become motionless.” These two fragments from the artist begin to unlock why I find Albright’s work so compelling.
I first saw Albright’s work live at the Chicago Art Museum when I was a teenager. I remember being unwilling to move from his painting That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door). The painting enthralled me on multiple levels. First, the title intrigued me. I wasn’t used to artists who did more than hint at what their work was about or even distract from it through their titles. Albright’s titles tell part of the story of the work. (Of course, not wholly—he is an artist, and understands that the viewer/reader must also be allowed space to feel about the work. There must be enough loose threads that someone outside the work can pick up and tie to their own experiences.) His works bear names such as: Wherefore Now Ariseth the Illusion of a Third Dimension; And Man Created God in His Own Image (Room 203); Poor Room—There is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever and Forever without End (The Window); Heavy the Oar to Him Who Is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea. As an incipient poet, I was fascinated that a painting title could read as a compact story or poem.
Next, the dates given for the painting, 1931-41, struck me. The artist took a decade to complete a single canvas. More than inspiration, that suggested obsession. This was an artist who was compelled to visit and revisit his work, to tell different parts of the same story, to approach it from all angles. Indeed, Albright has noted that he wanted to convey the way light “fragmented” his subjects as it hit them from all sides. For many of his pieces, Albright built three-dimensional mock-ups in his studio so he could circle around them, enabling him to add details to his paintings for years longer than any human subject would be willing to sit.
This leads to the most compelling aspect of Albright’s work for me as a young person. His depictions were both arresting and horrifying—almost grotesque in their strangeness. Teens are learning that much about adult life contains just that mix of fascinating and frightful. They are acutely alert to ways in which surfaces misrepresent. They are still heavily undergoing socialization, that great falsehood in which they are told to act politely and strive for certain socially-permissible goals, while underneath, they know that what drives humans are baser, uglier, more selfish instincts. They are new to their sexualized bodies, which fascinate but also horrify. They are self-conscious about their hair, their skin, their symmetry (or lack thereof). Ivan Albright’s canvases showed that surface is an illusion, clean beauty is an illusion. He understood the multiplicity within us. He wasn’t afraid to look at ugliness and make it beautiful without hiding it or glossing it over. In fact, imperfection was the source of his inspiration. I was hooked.
Albright tells writer Katherine Kuh, “For some time now I haven’t painted pictures, per se. I make statements, ask questions, search for principles. The paint and brushes are but mere extensions of myself or scalpels if you wish.” This claim resonates with me, now a poet in my own right, all grown up. My poems are extensions of myself—statements, questions, and investigations of principles. They are about the process as much as the product. Ivan Albright’s work inspires Ekphrastic poetry because it asks for multiple visits, begs multiple interpretations. Even reporting what the painter is doing is an elusive project.
For example, when he paints wealthy art collector Mary Block (Portrait of Mary Block), is he celebrating her or gently mocking her? He conveys her strength of character, her wealth, and her command, at the same time that he makes her look menacing and ghoulish. Similarly, in his self-portraits, (specifically those from 1934-5), he places himself among desirable things in elegant clothes, yet manages to make himself look dissipated, like someone coming apart at the seams. The body of young female model in Three Love Birds has a youthful face while at the same time welling and bursting with the kind of bubbling accretions we associate with middle and old-age. All of this dissonance begs for a poetic response.
Too, I appreciate Albright’s desire to separate himself from movements and labels. He was unafraid to be other, a “voice” of one for an audience of one. Susan Weininger’s essay, “Ivan Albright in Context,” quotes him thus: “To join some general movement in art …is to join a buffalo stampede. I say, let the artist be the hunter rather than the buffalo.” As someone who dropped out of an MFA program because of distaste for how Academia seemed to demand a particular voice and produce an aesthetic in almost cookie-cutter fashion, I embrace this independence of spirit. Similarly, in this internet age with its plethora of literary journals, it’s not clear if anyone at all is reading our poetry except for the editors who selected it and the poets who wrote it. One has to write primarily for oneself, interrogating existence out of a private and obsessive motivation.
Finally, Albright models how I want to die. Four days before his own death, he created his final self-portrait (Self-Portrait 1983), a shaky line-drawing of his eyes, later made into an etching by John Paulus Semple. The body has all but gone, the life forced out of it, but the artist as witness, the vision of Albright’s singular intelligence, remain to the very end. That is what I hope for, to comment on my experiences until the biochemical mystery that makes me who I am ceases.
Thus, I offer Ivan Albright as a source of inspiration to all who read this. One can visit and revisit his works endlessly without exhausting their narratives. Each canvas contains a world and its stories, whether depicting the animate or the inanimate. Nothing is as it seems. Paraphrasing Albright, every time we stir ourselves to examine them, the canvases come to life. One suspects that even after we turn our backs, they go on living and speaking—if only to themselves.
(All quotations and images referenced from Ivan Albright: Magic Realist, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997)
Devon Balwit is a poet and educator from Portland, Oregon, who learned to love art from her artist parents. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, among them: 3 elements, 13 Myna Birds, Anti-Heroin Chic, Dream Fever Magazine, Dying Dahlia Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Free State Review, MAW, Rat's Ass Review, Rattle, Red Paint Hill Publishing, Referential, Serving House Journal, The Cape Rock, The Literary Nest, The Yellow Chair, Timberline Review, vox poetica, and Vanilla Sex Magazine. She welcomes contact from her readers.
The Atwood Truffle
Margaret Atwood is an award winning Canadian author whose literary works often deal with issues of identity, survival, the body, wilderness, feminism and, at times, zombies.
The oil pastel “Atwood Truffle” is based upon Margaret Atwood’s short story “Kat” (1990) which explores the break down of a relationship. At the end of the relationship Kat sends her excised ovarian cyst - containing hair and teeth - to her former lover. Patted lovingly with powdered cocoa before being sent the cyst is not “privileged figure”, is not “body”, but is both part of former “self” and “other selves”.
When Atwood gets in your head, she stays in your head. It was only two years after Atwood’s short story was published that the artist Francis Bacon died. I caught myself wondering if he had ever read Atwood’s “Kat”? Like Atwood, Bacon gets in your head and stays in your head, the pendulum of his naked light bulb sparking your nervous system:
Ode to Francis Bacon
(Dan Nuttall, 2013)
So much about Atwood and Bacon is about the body, the figure and the figurative. Atwood has carefully outlined that her works that are considered “science fiction” are really more aptly described as “speculative fiction” – events and technologies are entirely feasible given the world we currently live in. In contrast, science fiction addresses unseen or un-realized technologies (e.g., time travel). Similarly, Bacon spoke about “great art” as having attributes that reinvent fact or known existence, resulting in a “re-concentration” of the known. In a world where one casts a vote for fictional dinner duos I choose Bacon and Atwood.
When looking at “Atwood Truffle” can one consider it “figurative”? It is derived from a real object source (both a short story, and a form of cancer known as a “teratoma”). But is a teratoma a “figure”? When Bacon’s obsession with the mouth and in particular his favourite scream from the movie “The Battleship Potemkin” appears in the truffle does it become more of a figure? When does flesh become figure?
Without a voice, the “Atwood Truffle” screams for attention.
Reflections on Viewing Michael De Feo's Installation "Crosstown Traffic" at Rice Gallery, Rice University, by Susan P. Blevins
Reflections on Viewing Michael De Feo's Installation "Crosstown Traffic" at Rice Gallery, Rice University
When I first viewed the art installation by Michael de Feo, I liked it. The glass panels, with photographs of larger than life female models advertising luxury goods, partially ornamented and obscured by the artist’s painterly tendrils and flourishes, gave a swirling sense of wild nature and movement, which complemented and contrasted with the chic women, frozen in artificial pose.
Then I sat and pondered, and saw beneath their beauty, behind the curling tendrils which hold them prisoner in sylvan grasp, like wild animals ensnared. Underwater weeds seeking to hold them fast, dangerous African landscapes fraught with danger. Or was the installation simply showing us the dangers of the urban jungle?
I saw each one of them as Eve, temptress, sowing corrupting seeds of discontent in the marrow of our life, to make us dream of what might be, instilling a longing for what we lack, seductively seducing us away from gratitude for what we have. Are they the tools of advertising moguls on Wall Street, working subliminally on the collective unconscious? Are we the viewers the real prey in their big game?
Is this truth or dream? Illusion or reality? Perhaps beauty itself is a myth? Are they but symbols of spurious values which pervade our society today? Are they a symptom of a malaise in our midst which manifests itself as pandemic violence and physical sickness? Cancer of the soul and of the body. There is no separation between body, mind and spirit, so why not?
Beautiful or ugly, good or bad, we all end up eventually on the trash heap of history, dust of mortality, which tells no tales, leaves no traces, forgotten like yesterday’s fashion or last night’s dinner. History is fickle and moves only forward, leaving behind the good, the bad and the ugly.
It is indiscriminate, for isn’t history constantly being re-created and relativized by the victors?
There’s also something almost Victorian about these panels: “Little girls should be seen and not heard,” echo the suffocating voices of my English childhood, as I stare at their silent faces. What would they say if they were allowed a voice? Money buys all sorts of things, from bodies to silence to rulers of nations. Isn’t it time for women to say ‘no’ to objectification?
Like poor Ophelia drowned beneath murderous waters they stare at us, the starers, numbed and muted in their beautiful isolation, entombed behind cold unfeeling glass. Do they envy us, I wonder? Want to be free like us, the voyeurs? But the big question is: Are any of us free, or is that an illusion which also reaches out and holds us in its tentacles?
Are they after all reflecting back to us our own reflections, trapping us all in lust and envy, trying to warn us of the dangers of false values, of the sad decline of beauty, truth and goodness?
Surely such eternal values can never die, though looking through the glass, perhaps we see a void which makes us sad and melancholy, because we are obliged to look into our own aching, endless loneliness.
Susan P. Blevins
Susan P. Blevins was born in England, lived 26 years in Italy, and has now resided in the USA for the past 24 years, first in Taos, NM, and currently in Houston, TX. While living in Rome she had a weekly column in an international, English-language newspaper, writing about food and restaurant reviews primarily, though not exclusively. Since living in the USA she has written pieces on gardens and gardening for N. American and European publications, and she is now writing stories of her life and travels and gaining traction in various literary publications. She loves reading, writing, cats, classical music, and stimulating conversation.
Fifteen Years with the San Bartolo Mural
Fifteen years ago, archaeologist William Saturno suffered the first symptoms of heat stroke as he crawled into a tunnel at San Bartolo, Guatemala. He was weak and dizzy, and he only picked the corridor to avoid the mean, brutal sun.
His flashlight bounced over the walls of a looters trench, and all at once, he saw the tall, beautiful bodies of the Maya god of corn and his followers on their knees around him or carrying to him the sacrifices he required, hummingbirds and bees, babies emerging bloody with afterbirth from the world itself.
We will probably never know the name of the artist who worked at San Bartolo. But we do know one thing: he or she was a master. The artist painted San Bartolo worked quickly to paint all four walls of the interior of the Pyramid of the Pictures.
"Sometimes archaeologists have been able to detect drip lines on Preclassic painted monumental masks, where the artist was unable to control the flow of paint," David Freidel told National Geographic. "The San Bartolo mural was painted by a great master, with fine-line exquisite details all perfectly rendered."
He (or she, but based on previous understandings of mural painters probably he) painted four walls with his own intricate representation of the culture and religion in which he lived.
Like the Romans and Greeks, the Maya had constructed high standards of beauty and ideal form.
But these specific elements to symbolize beauty often resulted in stilted, stiff figures with little dimension and serious, unemotive faces.
In other cases, the most emotive Maya paintings portray the conquered, the prisoners of war who would go on to be killed for their crimes against the state in the name of the gods. Their eyes sometimes make contact with the viewer directly, while their conqueror stares off in an air of perfection and pride.
San Bartolo is different.
Here, admiration for the gods radiates from the faces of their worshipers.
Here, gods jabbing knives into their own genitals to draw forth precious blood are bent at the waist with pain, and they don’t have the stoic faces of nobility conducting the same ceremony elsewhere.
Here, blood is not portrayed euphemistically as serpents, but it is rich, gushing, and frequent.
While the murals convey a number of ideas about the Maya cosmology, perhaps the most famous mural shows the Maize God, a figure which may represent his wife, and his followers, who offer tamales and mysterious bundles. Artist Heather Hearst has replicated this portion of the mural and posted it at PBS with explanations of the iconography archaeologists can identify.
The Maize God and his wife aren’t just royalty. They’re something more than human. The Maize God himself projects wind from his open mouth. Maya women typically wore a long dress-like garment absent on the Maize God’s wife, and the sensual curves of both their bodies are unique in Maya muralism.
At the later-era Bonampak mural, 700 years later, soldiers are arranged in precise symmetrical lines around kings and priests. These soldiers are all close to each other, but none stands so close to the leaders.
The worshipers around the Maize Gods are stacked on top of each other, probably to imply depth, perhaps symbolizing the petitioners’ desire to be close to this figure. One petitioner’s toe almost touches the god.
Yet in other ways, the Maize God knows the pain of life and death. He is four heads tall, as is his wife. The kneeling figures also appear to be about four heads tall, meaning he does not tower above them as some figures at Teotihuacan do. Nay, their god is among them. He is one of them. And, like them, like us, he will die.
The Maize God needs to die, or he can’t be reborn next year, and he can’t feed the people next year. Without his sacrifice, we would all be lost.
It’s a difficult sacrifice, but it’s one the Maya desired to emulate. If the gods would die for us, why shouldn’t we die for them? We eat of the earth, and the earth eats us.
While many of the elements of the San Bartolo mural reflect typical Maya myth, the variation on themes is impressive—and it creates new questions.
The mural features Maya writing, but it is of such an early age that it doesn’t look like the writing epigraphers are used to seeing. Arguably the world’s best Maya epigrapher, David Stuart, has tentatively identified a few glyphs, but whether they represent the names of the individuals featured on the mural, the contents of the mysterious bundles carried by the standing black and red figures, or a record of a ceremony of some sort, he doesn’t know.
Zach Lindsey is a student of anthropology and an English as a Second Language teacher. He fell in love with art history after reading Elie Faure’s books. You can view his website at http://arqueogato.tumblr.com, but it’s mostly just an eclectic collection of pictures of art and architecture he’s taken, so he’s not sure if you really want to.
On the way to my studio by the river, in the very early morning, the grain trucks line up, heaped with a pale sienna load that sends the sparrows hopping and hoping. They bring wheat from eastern Oregon, grown in the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range, to be shipped around the world. Some truck drivers are also the farmers, wearing overalls like in a children’s book. David, the building maintenance guy at my building calls them rubes and toolies; he has to go out and yell at them not to pee in the dirt while waiting to unload.
My studio sits between the train track and the Willamette River. Ships cross my window in huge black isosceles while on the other side of me are the trains, with a long mournful wail that makes a vagabond of all my intentions to work. But is mine work? What is a working artist? A plumber would never be called “a working plumber.” He’s either employed or unemployed. The farmers come, feed the grain elevators, they return to the farm as quickly as possible, before the sly city parts them from their hard earned cash. The trucks haul their goods, the ships move products across the water and the artists in my building only change the shape of shapes, add and remove colours, chase ideas and concepts making me wonder—is it work?
I am closing my eyes, imagining Tehching Hsieh. He’s a performance artist and even my hero, though we’ve never met. It may be best to never meet heroes, though I met Allen Ginsberg once and he was terrific. Tehching did a performance where he stayed outside for an entire year. Another time he punched a time clock every hour for a year, and took a video each hour he punched in. It meant he couldn’t sleep, or do anything, for longer than an hour. He looks a little crazy in the video and it makes you feel somewhat ashamed to watch him, like those television ads they used to run of starving children and you were the one who had to turn the channel.
Tehching’s works were called “One Year Performances” because each one lasted a year. For one year he lived in a cage. Someone brought him food and emptied his feces. One year he punched the time clock. For a year, he lived outside, never going into any building. Between 1983-1984 he tied himself with a rope to another artist, Linda Montano, whom he barely knew. They ate, slept, worked, and presumably had relationships with other people. There is an iconic photograph of them walking on either side of a train track.
That year, the one of the rope performance, I gave birth to my first child. Was it work? It was effort. Was it art? I was the architect of that moment, though I was not entirely the sole creator. I love my sons more than I love art and even work, which is saying quite a bit.
And during that one year I lived in a kind of cage, because I lived in a body that was confined and I shared what went in and what went out. And for nine months and three, I counted the time each day. I could not hide anywhere I went, my body was public information. I had tied myself willingly to someone I hardly knew. After the One Year performances, Tehching spent a year making art he never showed anyone and then he stopped making art at all (or so he said—that’s what Marcel Duchamp said, and we know how that turned out.)
In the studio, it’s back to work. Tehching, Tehching! The dirty trucks come to life with a roar, ships churn up the white river water and the trains have vanished, the red barrier raised. All work is transitory and invisible, the products out in the world and what is between them runs on parallel tracks, awaiting the train.
Merridawn Duckler is a poet, playwright and prose writer from Portland, Oregon. Recent poetry in TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blast Furnace, Zone 3, The Psychoanalytic Review, The Meadow and Really System, forthcoming from Stonecoast Review, The Offing, Rivet, Nerve Lantern, Blue Lyra. She was runner-up for the 2014 poetry residency at the Arizona Poetry Center, judged by Farid Matuk. Her manuscript was a finalist in the 2016 Brooklyn-based Center for Book Arts contest. Recent prose in Poetica and humour in Defenestration. She was a finalist for the 2016 Sozoplo Fiction Fellowship. Her play in verse was in the Emerging Female Playwright Festival of the Manhattan Shakespeare Project. Other plays have been performed in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Valdez, Alaska. Fellowships/awards include Writers@Work, NEA, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Berta Anolic Arts Fellowship to Jerusalem, others. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
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