Friday, May 22, 2009

Art of the Furies


On Saturday night at the JK Gallery in Culver City, we attended the opening reception for a series of new paintings by the artist Kathleen Waterloo. Kathleen tells me the paintings were inspired by my novel, NIGHT OF THE FURIES.

Kathleen (right) with LA sophistos

The works are colorful abstractions of classical architecture, with each painting borrowing its tantalizing title from a Greek term found in my book (e.g., Naos, Eleusis, Mystai, Kystai, Kykeon, etc.).

I'm always interested in the role chance plays in the production of a work of art. Kathleen's paintings seem a subtle mix of playful happenstance and conscious design.
Surprisingly, this sense of artful spontaneity is captured in a painstaking ancient technique called encaustic.

Encaustic is from the Greek word enkaustikos meaning 'to fuse,' or ‘to burn in.' The ancient Greeks sealed the hulls of their ships by coating them with wax and resin, while heating the coat with fire. Eventually they began to mix in pigments, adding color to create their startling warships.

Though slow and difficult, the layering of the wax heating process gives a rich and life-like optical effect, and is far more durable than tempera.

By the 5th c. B.C., the technique was being used in highlighting features of the marble statues on the Acropolis and the famous Parthenon frieze.

"Phidias and the Elgin Marbles"by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, oil, 1868

Kathleen explains her use of the process:

"Animal or vegetable wax (I use beeswax) is melted with the resin of the Asian fir tree. Oil paint is then added to the hot liquid and applied with brush to a wooden panel. The wax immediately hardens and must be fused with fire, or heat, for its permanency."

Along with gorgeous colors (you really can't appreciate the translucent effect in these flat, digital images) the process leaves an interesting edge to the paintings.

Here's how the catalog sums up her art: "The elegance of the works is tempered by geometric blocks of color, giving a sense of contingency to the otherwise highly controlled world of architecture."

I like that: a sense of contingency. It speaks to the process, the art of the art. As if Chance had been caught while fusing into Fate.

Coming Home

Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, I received a copy of my Uncle Bob Angsten's account of his experiences in WWII. Bob was assigned to the 1252nd Engineer Combat Battalion, a part of General Patton's Third Army. After nearly getting killed during the Battle of the Bulge, he rode with a fleet of tanks across the Siegfried Line, overran a V-2 rocket launching site, passed through the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, dropped in for a visit to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, and celebrated his survival with a two-week "Rest & Rehab" gig in Paris.

Time to head home, right?
Not yet.

"In July, '45, we were sent to Marseilles, France to be completely re-outfitted with new vehicles, arms, clothing, for our intended re-assignment to the CBI (China, Burma, India theater of operations) to help end the war with Japan. Everyone knew that, since the 1252nd single-handedly ended the European war, we would be needed to do the same thing to Japan. On August 23, 1945, we left Marseilles heading for the Panama Canal. Three days later, "the bombs" were dropped on Japan and our troopship abruptly changed course for Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts. In the Boston harbor, by this freakish and undeserved turn of events, we happened to be among the first, if not the, first troopship to return to the States. In the craziness and jubilation of the moment we were escorted into the harbor by anything and everything that would float, including several fire-boats shooting water over our bow. No other experience on earth could match the emotional intensity of that moment when 2,500 grown men aboard were bawling like babies!"
Uncle Bob went on to serve in the Illinois National Guard before embarking on a career in the auto industry, marrying, and eventually raising six children. He ends his humble tale with this:

"All of my still-surviving buddies of the 1252nd agree on one thing: we would never want to go through anything like WWII again, yet we wouldn't have missed the experience for all the world! Note that not wanting to go through it again is a lot different than refusing to go. Living in freedom is well worth the price."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Missing heroes

Mark Steyn writes Superheroes Are Starting to Bug Me:

"The critic James Bowman thinks the current vogue for big screen superheroes helps to isolate and quarantine heroism in fanatasy-land. 'Heroism' is what people who’ve been bitten by radioactive spiders do. Until that happens to you, best to steer clear. And so a world of superheroes leads to a world without heroes. Gone now are the amateur adventurers of 19th- and 20th-century fiction, chaps who’d find themselves caught up in something, and decide to give it a go, initially because it’s a ripping wheeze but also because, in some too-stiff-upper-lipped-to-say way, they understood honour required it. Now the conventional romantic hero is all but extinct, and as giants patrol the skies those of us on the ground are perforce smaller. In The Incredibles, there’s a famous line aimed at the feel-good fatuities of contemporary education: when everyone’s special, nobody is. The failure of storytelling in today’s Hollywood teaches a different lesson: when everyone’s super, nobody’s a hero."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Maenads Descend on U.S. Capitol

Some myths seem perpetually ripe for reinterpretation. The female devotees of the Greek god Dionysus, known as bacchae, or maenads, have been the subject of artists and writers for nearly 3000 years (click HERE for a gallery of historical examples). Perhaps the most famous work based on the myth is the playwright Euripides' ancient tragedy, The Bacchae. Written in a time of war and plague, it explored the dangers of unconscious possession and the horrors of instinctual passions unleashed. Euripides' play was the inspiration for my thriller, Night of the Furies, which imagined similar irrational passions recurring in contemporary times.

But maenads have only rarely been viewed as savage hellions of horror; more often their unconsciousness is portrayed as a kind of innocence, a playful, joyful freedom.

Dancing Maenad and Satyr, Pompeii.
An exhibit entitled "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," which recently opened at the LA County Museum of Art, shows several superb examples of these docile, dancing maenads, recovered from the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius. Most of the works date from the 1st century BC to the year of the eruption, in 79 AD. Although Rome had conquered Greece in the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, the Romans adored Greek art and culture and adapted its myths and themes as their own.

Dionysos with kantharos (drinking cup) and maenad holding a sacred thyrsus.

Mask of maenad, from the House of the Gilded Cupids, Pompeii.

Relief panel of Maenad and Satyr, in procession with Dionysus, the Lord of Liberation, draped in an animal hide and holding a pine-cone thyrsus. From Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples.

Some 18 centuries after it was buried, this delicate fresco of a floating maenad, recovered from the House of Ship in Pompeii, inspired a distant descendant of the ancients, Constantino Brumidi.
The Greek-Italian artist, born and trained in Rome, emigrated to the United States in 1852, and three years later was hired to create murals in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. (Only in America!)

His paintings for the Naval Affairs Committee Room (since 1912 the Senate Appropriations Conference Room) are based on his study of Pompeian wall decoration and, specifically, the fresco of the floating maenad.

As you can see in this close-up, Brumidi's angelic, Pompaeian maenad has exchanged her sacred Dionysian thyrsus for a star-studded American flag. Over two millenia, she's gone from hysterical madwoman to patriotic nymph.

But beware: In the shadowy corridors of Congress, you never know when a possessed maenad will succumb to the dark side again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


At the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles last weekend, we saw the great Leonard Cohen in concert--an absolute delight! I've been an ardent fan since my college days, when I saw him play solo in a small Chicago club. Canadian by birth, Cohen grew up in a Jewish family in a wealthy neighborhood of Montreal. A lugubrious romantic, his somber songs have always been more popular in Britain and Europe than in the United States (I remember hearing his gravelly voice droning from a phonograph in a Paris neighborhood when I was going to school there in 1975).

But unlike many listeners, I've never found his music depressing. Even his most bitter song ("Everybody Knows") has a jokey joyousness, an undertone of pleasure. This cosmic sense of acceptance seems to have only increased with age. His last time out, fourteen years ago, we saw him perform at the Wiltern Theater in LA. Since then he spent five years in seclusion at the Zen retreat on Mt. Baldy. It appears to have done him some good. He seems less melancholy--dare I say even happy?--and could be seen at the Nokia literally skipping across the stage. Many of his most impassioned songs were performed on bended knee, and his voice seems to have grown even deeper and more resonant. At times in the large hall of the Nokia, he reached the sustained, guttural lows of a Tibetan Gyuto monk. Cohen is 74 years old.

From the Nokia concert, someone YouTubed this cell phone video of his performance of Hallelujah. It's one of his most famous and frequently covered songs. He discussed it in 1997 in this interview with Chris Doritos, where he also played a unique and thrilling Flamenco version of the song, performed by the Spaniard Enrique Morente. For years the recording was unavailable; now you can listen to it HERE. Crank up the volume, close your eyes, sit back and relax like a monk--I guarantee you'll be catapulted into transcendent realms of bliss. Hallelujah!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Crisis = Danger + Opportunists

There's been a lot of talk lately about "not wasting a crisis," that the financial disaster offers a chance to do big things and make great changes. The unspoken catalyst for all this change, of course, is fear--when people are scared they're more easily swayed. In such times, we are frequently reminded that the Chinese symbol for "crisis" consists of two characters, one denoting "danger" and the other "opportunity." The idea that a crisis is an opportunity has become a kind of reassuring proverb. It is also entirely false.

Victor H. Mair, the renowned professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania (his translation of Chuang Tzu, Wandering on the Way, is one of my favorite books), has written an enlightening essay explaining that "crisis" = "danger" + "opportunity" is a "potentially perilous, fundamentally fallacious theory."
Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of elements meaning "danger" and "opportunity" are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit. Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.
The Chinese logograph for "crisis" is wēijī, consisting of two characters:


While the wēi character does indeed denote "danger," Professor Mair contends that the character most definitely does not denote "opportunity."

The of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one's skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

It’s important to be clear in our words, especially in times of wēijī. As the great Taoist Chuang Tzu said, "When deeds and words are in accord, the whole world is transformed." But for those opportunists with utopian dreams, the master added this admonition:
If you persist in trying to attain what is never attained, you will be destroyed by the very thing you seek. To know when to stop, to know when you can get no further by your own action, this is the right beginning!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Language of Myth

Harry Holland, Outcrop
"We have come to realize that myths are among the subtlest and most direct languages of experience. They reenact moments of signal truth or crisis in the human condition. By mythology is more than history made memorable; the mythographer - the poet - is the historian of the unconscious. This gives the great myths their haunting universality."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

G wiz

The amazing Varanasi photographer Laurent G has a beautiful post on the Eleusinian Mysteries, which he illustrates with this typically haunting image.For anyone with an interest in the religion and mythology of India, I urge you to visit his gorgeous site, designldg. Here are just a few of his astounding photographs.