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.