Barye’s Theseus Fighting the Minotaur
a Story in Twelve Attempts
The wooden floorboards in the Portland Art Museum (PAM) creak. In one room on the first floor, people walking without talking generate a roaring cacophony of creaks, squeaks, thumps, bumps, and all manner of sounds that pliable wood floors generate under the shifting weight of dozens of people. The sound is louder, more oppressive than the audio for the installation in the adjoining room. I still haven’t found the artwork to use as the subject of this piece.
When entering PAM (heheh)--
While sitting on the couch by Barye’s Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, I briefly fall asleep.
“Hey, you.” It’s the lady with the short blonde bob I met late at night in the hospital a few weeks ago.
She is sitting next to me on the couch.
“Hey, yourself. What brings you here on a Wednesday afternoon?”
“I work here.” She smiles and leans toward me.
I smile back as my eyes close.
Something about Barye’s Theseus impels me to continue looking at it. I walk around it clockwise, then counterclockwise. I look at it from across the room, and with my nose touching the glass case. Standing in one position, I slowly rotate, moving the piece across the field of vision, out of it, and back in again. I start close to the glass and back away from it. I crouch as close as possible to the white column supporting it to get a view of the underside. I stand on tiptoe and lean over it, looking at it from directly above. I stand with my back to it and bend at the hips, looking at it upside down through my legs. I bounce up and down to see it while in motion. I sit on the couch, looking at it from the side, my body twisted to the right to look at the statue. On the phone, I look up images of this very artwork while standing next to it, comparing the facsimile to the real.
And yet I have nothing to say about it.
Barye, like many artists, drew inspiration from the myths of antiquity.
The most common interpretation of the Minotaur myth is as an allegory for man subduing his own bestial nature. There are less conventional theories positing that it symbolizes the ending of the Age of Taurus, as the Exodus story of the golden calf does in the Hebrew Bible.
There also seems to be an element of warring phalluses—a bull and its horns, a young man and his sword. They’re deep within the Labyrinth, a devouring yoni if ever there was one. What about Ariadne and her string?
Is this statue meant to be so homoerotic? It does not look like a fight.
I had to ask for directions to find this room. The museum employee, holding a lantern, led me through a long circuitous passageway downward, past secret exhibits below the museum, up flights of stairs, through a storage room filled with wooden crates stacked to the ceiling, around areas closed for construction and renovation, through an unmarked door that led to an office filled with cubicles, over a walkway high above the museum’s first floor installation, down several flights of stairs (each level marked with eldritch, foreign sigils unknown to eyes that have seen the sun), over a bridge of bones spanning an underground stream, past a series of doors guarded by armored sentries who responded to the employee’s speaking of a guttural and nauseating tongue, into a vast musty subterranean matrix of catacombs in which the sound of scraping stone echoes, past great pits of glowing red coals over which unrecognizable effigies burned obscenely, around stalagmites of pure obsidian that seemed to press in upon the path, finally reaching great adamantine gates flanked by sconces on which she threw incense of the most putrid smell.
“I must leave you here,” she said, handing me the lantern before donning a hooded cloak and quickly departing.
When I stepped closer, the dim, dizzying light of the sconces revealed hieroglyphs of some kind, nearly indecipherable from the wear of many ages, depicting a bull-god at the head of throngs of nude, prostrate people. The symbols were unlike any I had ever seen in my years of scholarship of the ancient civilizations.
Behind the adamantine gate stood an enormous replica of Barye’s Theseus, only with the figures reversed. The hero’s sword lay shattered on the ground as an anthropomorphic bull overtook him; his brass mouth was frozen in a silent scream. From somewhere in the maze of passages beyond the statue came a bellowing, snorting call followed by thunderous fall of hooves. A hot wind from the passages extinguished the torch, leaving blackness and a monstrous roar that grew ever louder.
I am standing by Barye’s Theseus. I move my face very close to the corner where panes of glass meet suddenly. The perpendicular joint, observed from inches away, refracts the light in an unpredictable, shifting way. Images of Theseus and his phallic sword proliferate into thousands. Directions collapse and language falls out of my brain. Everything expands into a single miniscule point in space.
It begins to seem that the invisible air and white walls are the works of art and these paintings are inverse frames, marking the bounds where white space ends and busy brushstrokes begin.
The fluorescent light buzzes.
After a reverie induced by staring at Barye’s Theseus, the presence of others in the room becomes apparent. Andy Goldsworthy, or possibly another consciousness animating that body, stands by a very large kiddie pool, which is filled with rose petals arranged in stripes of varying colour. A large stone cairn and a tightly packed pile of sticks are next to him. Goldsworthy is--
Nearby is an obsidian catafalque on which the corpse of Andy Warhol, wearing a tuxedo with the surgeon general’s tobacco warning screen-printed, rots. An Elvis impersonator wearing the 1968 comeback special outfit says, “This is his last work, his greatest work. The movie about sleeping was only a prelude.”
The couch in front of him is occupied by several nude, zaftig women to whom Peter Paul Rubens is doing something lewd while leering at one, then another.
Behind the couch Gustav Doré asks Jacob and the Angel, acting as their own models, to adjust their positions while he engages in the slow process of creating a woodcut depicting the scene.
Did Barye make all this? Did all of this make Barye?
After looking at Theseus for over twenty minutes, I realize that the Minotaur has left scratch marks on Theseus’ back.
“What do you think I should write for this piece?”
“Don’t you have any ideas of your own?”
“Do you know Greek mythology well?”
“Is it cheating if I give you ideas?”
“Do I have any ideas of my own?”
“How would I know?”
“What comes next?”
Eric is a musician and writer. He has released two solo guitar albums, Precious Memories and Take Time to Be Holy, both of which are available through major download and streaming services. Eric is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where his concentrations are Eastern European literature and creative writing.
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