Monday, December 23, 2019

Inferno XXVI: Bifurcations


Inferno XXVI: Ulysses and Diomedes
Ink on paper, 2019
22 x 15”

Inferno XXVI hosts a dramatic encounter between Dante, Virgil and the doubly-entrapped shades of Ulysses and Diomedes, who are bound together in a single flame. (fig. 16) Theirs is the most conspicuous of many thousands that feebly illuminate the terrain, and they are imprisoned within a forked tongue of fire for various sins: primarily the ingenious plot to inhabit the Trojan Horse with insidious raiders, and plotting the ingenious Trojan Horse raid, stealing the cherished cult statue of Pallas Athen, the talisman of Troy. 

*.  *.  *

The administrative work I've been doing for the past 2.5 years has been rewarding in many ways. I have certainly learned a tremendous lot about how the college operates, and have gotten to know the work of many extraordinary people. Most of all, I've been honored with the privilege to support the continuation of their good work, as teachers and artists. 

It's been a little tough to switch gears from full-time dean—signing papers, settling disagreements and sitting in meetings—to resourceful artist with only a couple of spare hours a night to invest in the latter. The nature of the project I am doing hasn't allowed a ton of time to just sit and draw, to make mistakes, to start over.  A drawing in this series can take days to complete, from sketch to finish, and nabbing an hour here and there isn't really the way to accomplish that. Still, I can only blame myself, because I've never learned to flip the switch from work to artistic pursuit, from left-to right-brained immersion on such short order. The job will end on 30 June 2020, however, as I have decided to forego renewal of the contract for another term, and return to teaching and studio work.

I had not been able to return to the series of drawings in a full year, due to work commitments, and I produced this drawing of Ulysses and Diomedes while teaching in Rome in summer 2019. Through an odd set of coincidences, I happened to visit the beach at Sperlonga, near Rome, and learned that the sculpture of Ulysses that I used as reference for his face in this drawing was originally located in the grotto of Tiberius, located only steps from my spot on the beach; and a later visit to the Vatican Museums brought me face-to-face with the sculpture of Athena that I used for another significant element of the image, the Palladium. Synchronicity endures. My life and that of Dante are intertwined in astonishing ways, and my process is likewise a humble mirror of his narrative—both personal and poetic.

Inferno XXV: The Pleasures of Research















Inferno XXV: Cacus, The Centaur
Ink on Paper, 2018
22 x 15"

For a moment in Inferno XXV, Dante catches sight of the monster Cacus, an Ancient Greek monster who is embodied as a centaur in Dante's conception. A spectacular horror, we are introduced to Cacus, insane with rage and covered with snakes and a winged, fire-breathing dragon on his back. 


*.   *.   *


Herein lies one of the most profound examples of the pleasures that research has brought me in pursuit of this project. I have discovered a great many things in while preparing myself for this work, and again in writing about it.


I lived for a time in Rome, walking regularly by the beautiful, round temple of Hercules Victor, a referential tribute to his defeat of Cacus, who not only stole the cattle of Hercules but who had a terrible history of eating human flesh and tacking the heads of his victims to the entrance to his cave. Though a character from Greek mythology, he was said to have lived in pre-Roman times, near the site of Hercules' temple. He was not a centaur, but your garden variety, fire-breathing monster—the terror of the neighborhood until Hercules set him straight.


Now, I walked by this spot all the time because it was on the edge of my neighborhood, and I was well aware of its association with Hercules, but only through research for this drawing did I discover so many dimensions of its history—the tether to Greek myth, enduring in Roman culture; the history of the site as the ancient cattle market in Rome; and the engagement of one of my favorite boyhood heroes, the brutal genius—half-god, half-man—named Hercules.


Inferno XXIV: Demise and Deja Vu


Inferno XXIV: Vanni Fucci's Horrific Cycle
Ink on Paper, 2018
22 x 15"

We remain in the eighth circle of Hell, and here we meet the thief, Vanni Fucci di Pistoia, who is—in the tradition of Sisyphus and Prometheus—destined for all eternity to die and be reborn in an endless cycle of terror and pain.


*.  *.  *

Vanni Fucci is one of the more vulgar characters in Dante's Hell, and he suffers one of the most diabolical and exhaustively terrible fates in the story. Before boldly directing crude gestures to God, he explains to Dante that he once stole from his church, only to blame it on someone else, who was put to death in his stead. Without fail Vanni Fucci is now ensnared in a cycle of strangling entanglement with snakes, who bite him ferociously. Immediately, he bursts into flame and disintegrates, turning to ash—only to be immediately reborn in order to endure the same terrible fate all over again. This happens forever.

The mythic correlation to both Sisyphus and Prometheus is striking, with the latter in particular bearing a significant similarity—both symbolically and literally— to Vanni Fucci's predicament. In both stories the victim is a thief who, having stolen from the divine, must not only endure torture for all time, but must repeat his own history of terror and pain. There may be no more harrowing fate than to be subject to death, with the guarantee that it will happen over again. PTSD to the max.


Inferno XXIII: Cloaks of Gold and Lead















Inferno XXIII: The Hypocrite Friars
Ink on paper, 2019
22 x 15”

After squeaking by the infuriated demons of the last scene, whose raging is carried forth in Canto XXIII, Dante and Virgil encounter a solemn group of friars, whose cloaks of glittering gold are lined with dense lead. These are hypocrites, destined to bear their embattled duplicity as garments.


*.  *.  * 

Perhaps one of the most brilliant moments of contrapasso in L'Inferno happens here, when Dante and Virgil engage in dialogue with a group of treacherous friars who embody one of Dante's greatest peeves: hypocrisy. Two of the more politically empowered of these friars, Godenti Catalano and Loderingo, favored the Guelphs in Florence, and this resulted in the destruction of Ghibelline (specifically, Uberti) homes in the Gardingo neighborhood of Florence. 

Dante's genius for "just-dessertism" is in full flower in Canto XXIII, as he cloaks these unfortunate, once "jovial" friars in glimmering gold, presenting an outward appearance of brilliance and opulence, while internally miring them in lead linings. He takes delight in punishing his transgressive cast of characters with such exquisite contrapassi. Never has "the punishment fits the crime" been more aptly applied.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Inferno XXII: The Falling Man.

















Inferno XXII: Ciampolo and the Malebranche
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Their tour of the eighth circle continues in Canto XXII, and Dante and Virgil attempt to stall the brutal mauling of a sinner, plucked from the tarry pitch below, by asking questions about his background. While Virgil quizzes him, the antagonistic demons cut bits of flesh from the pitiful soul, but he ultimately escapes their escalating torture when he distracts them sufficiently—leaping from the cliffs to the black goo below. The scene is summed up at the end of the canto:
  
The Navarrese chose his time well;
He planted his feet on the ground, and in an instant
He leapt and escaped their designs.

*    *    *

I remember having dreams as a kid in which I was hiding from something—a monster or some other menace (Blacula, or Charles Manson, glaring with his coal black eyes as he did in news photographs, were perennial threats). In these dreams I was always wedged in the triangle of space behind an open door, looking through the crack on the hinged side. While safe for the moment, the threat was imminent and I was terrified of being discovered, and then God-knows-what. The primal instinct to flee overpowered the rational need to remain in hiding and the decisive moment always came. As the perp came closer I would leap from my hiding place, arms and limbs flailing in self-defense, screaming like mad to scare him off. I would then find myself awake.


The last bit of Canto XXII of L'Inferno evoked immediately a now famous image from 9-11 known as The Falling Man. Having lingo ago reached meme status, I'm a little sheepish about my exploitation of it for this drawing, but it remains potent to me so I wanted to refer to it. The image is that of a man plummeting head first from the World Trade Center tower, his arms to his sides, his left leg elegantly crooked to lend graceful proportion. The beauty of the image belies its horrific narrative. Moments before, the man was on the ledge of the building, undoubtedly agonizing in the face of a terrifying decision: jump or suffer an excruciating death by incineration. 


I like illustrating most when I am able to anticipate the visual literacy shared by most people and yet leave a few secrets to be discovered in the process of deciphering an image. Depending on this for dialogue with a viewer's memory and expecting their semiotic response system to engage, enabling them to answer the questions I am posing, can be deeply gratifying. This image unfolded that way, and—despite its tedious making—I really enjoyed all phases of its development.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Inferno XXI: "He made a trumpet of his rump."














Inferno XXI: The Malebranche
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In the fifth ditch (or malebolgia) of the eighth circle of Inferno, Dante and Virgil are immersed in tarry darkness, which—while unnerving—provides cover from a comically furious band of nine demons known as the Malebranche. Hidden behind the rocks, Dante is eventually revealed when Virgil addresses the rowdy brood. They threaten to attack but are stopped by Malacoda, their leader, as he engages Virgil in conversation, and even offers to accompany our heroes on the next leg of their journey. Much excitement ensues and their leader releases an explosive burst of gas from his butt or, in Dante's words, "ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta" (he made a trumpet of his rump):


Per l’argine sinistro volta dienno;
ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;
ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

They wheeled about along the left dike,
but not before each had thrust his tongue between 
his teeth in signal to their leader;
and he made a trumpet of his rump.

*    *    *

I grew up in a politically liberal yet sexually repressive household. My father and mother were born in 1918 and 1920, respectively, and I never saw them display affection with enjoyment or abandon. My father would arrive home from work at 5:00pm, and meet my mother in the kitchen. She would greet him cheerfully, and as their lips would touch, his gaze would meet mine with a furtive look of embarrassment, or even panic. When we watched the Jackie Gleason Show, with its sexy chorus girls in skimpy costumes, my dad would mutter "nothing but bums, all of them." He was fearful and disdainful of all things carnal, as was my mother, who was raised in a superstitious, Irish-Catholic household in Boston, with the remnants of 19th century moral codes guiding her conscience ("Marguerite, you know that the Blessed Mother frowns on little girls who whistle"). She squelched my own sexual expression early on in life (without revealing too much here's a snapshot: little boy, boner, bed) with a fierce glare.

I am always impressed and a little surprised when I encounter Canto XXI of L'Inferno, wherein the pious Dante delivers with gusto the imagery from the passage above. His delight in vulgarity is infectious, even if he disguises it by presenting it as the shameful product of a marauding band of demons. The plain truth is that Dante periodically indulges in vulgar bits of narrative, just as Chaucer did several decades later in The Canterbury Tales. Here's an excerpt from The Miller's Tale:

This Nicholas just then let fly a fart
As loud as it had been a thunder-clap,
And well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap;
But he was ready with his iron hot

And Nicholas right in the arse he got.

It's a dirty shame that things which come naturally to us as a species—the smelly, comically sonic marvels of flatulence, the unbridled enjoyment of animalistic sexual encounter, naughty delight in a dirty joke, unbridled promiscuity, empowerment to identify our own gender and sexual orientation —are arbitrarily relegated to the shadows of sin. Less than 500 years ago our carnal nature was factual. It was expected of us. We reveled in it. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the subject of changing sexual mores and the first volume of his History of Sexuality begins with a bang: 

“At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century. It was a time of direct gestures, shameless discourse, and open transgressions, when anatomies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when bodies “made a display of themselves.”

Reading Dante offers a glimpse of humanity's relationship with the illicit in medieval times, underscoring the notion that, whatever our proclivities or indulgences, we were born this way.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Inferno XX: The Diviners.















Inferno XX: The Diviners
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Dante arrives at a chasm which is "bathed in tears of agony," and beholds a gloomy, glacial procession of sinners. These are the diviners: magicians, soothsayers, fortune tellers, and military strategists who dared predict the future. Their perverse punishment is to possess a single mode of expression—incessant tears—while walking backwards with their heads twisted around.

*    *    *

We live where our attention is. When we direct our attention fully to the present moment, we are fully alive. —Eknath Easwaran 

The medieval church considered divination a form of heresy, usurping the omniscience of God as the sole author of fate. Dante's diviners are an absurd brood, weeping in an excruciatingly slow procession while walking backwards, with their heads twisted 180ยบ to enable them to see where they are going.

I'm the least qualified person to discourse on present mindfulness. A consummate worrier, I've nevertheless made an effort, but failed, to "live in the present" over the years. Sure, I believe that the future is not yet a reality and the past cannot be changed, but I spend a lot of time wondering how the consequences of my past idiocy will haunt me in the future.

For years I had a couple of anxiety dreams about the future. One dream was so exquisitely metaphorical that I actually cherished it when it recurred several times, even though it terrified me when it inhabited my sleep. It involved a tornado on the distant horizon, a sure sign of impending doom and destruction. Sometimes I was in a car, and other times I was in some sort of structure—a glass skyscraper, a house, looking out a kitchen window. In each instance I was engrossed in some conversation or some other activity involving other people when my attention would be drawn to the window. Looking out, I would catch sight of the ominous ribbon of black dust and debris, always on the horizon (it had to remain there—otherwise it would be about the present). I would always wake before it tore my life apart.

The second dream was also a recurring narrative that haunted my sleep. It was much more disturbing than the tornado dream, and seemed to be as much about the past as it was about the future. I would find myself in a deep pit somewhere, unable to get out and eventually made aware that I was in the grave with someone I had killed, albeit accidentally. Panic would inevitably ensue when I realized that the body would soon be buried by others, whose voices I could hear approaching from the landscape above. I would soon be discovered and punished, a victim of my own transgressions.

I haven't had either of these dreams for many years, and I do think they stopped around the time that I came out to my kids and separated from the wonderful woman to whom I was married for 20 years. No more fear of consequences for that horrific, unintended crime (which was a metaphor for the secrets I was keeping, I'm sure). To this day, when I reflect on the realism of that dream, I have to remind myself that I'd never harm a fly, and that my future no longer includes fear of being outed as a metaphorical murderer.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Inferno XIX: Comeuppance.













Inferno XIX: The Simonists
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Our heroes have arrived at the lip of the third bolgia in the eighth circle of hell. Looking across the expanse of stone, they see spirits buried upside down in holes in the ground—dozens of legs kicking spasmodically as the soles of their feet are licked by oily flames. They are, no doubt, very uncomfortable, having been shoved head first into stone. These are the simonists, people who used ecclesiastical positions of power for personal gain, and among them is a particularly noteworthy offender.

*    *    *

"Sometimes, when I lack the motivation to get out of bed and start the day, I remember revenge..."

Thus spake a particularly witty friend on Facebook last week, delighting me with his self-mocking spitefulness. I'm happy to boast that I'm not a vindictive person, but I do love a good tale of revenge in film and literature. Farrah Fawcett in Extremities, imprisoning her vile attacker in a fireplace. Hansel and Gretel, giving the momentarily clueless witch a run for her money into a blazing oven. Hamlet, hell-bent and psychotically obsessed with avenging his father's fratricide. And of course, there's Steven King's Carrie, launching a blazing, telekinetic massacre in a high school gym while drenched on stage in pig's blood. You go, girl.

Dante sometimes seems all about retribution, and—like many before and after him—he deftly utilizes narrative fiction to skewer his nemeses, wresting complete control in life's infinite power struggle by indulging himself and his reader in wicked comeuppance for transgressors. Dante delights in the imaginary punishment of his contemporaries by an omnipotent God, and their humiliation is made all the more public in the incremental distribution of his poem to the populace.

It's no coincidence that the simonists are buried in holes that resemble baptismal fonts. This instrument of purification and rebirth is perfectly suited to Dante's exquisite irony, and the lead recipient of this punishment is none other than Pope Nicholas III, who foreshadows the eventual arrival of (in Dante's eyes) an even more deserving papal cad—Pope Bonafice, the political leader of the Black Guelphs, the group that banished Dante from his beloved Florence. 

Comeuppance is a word perfectly suited for the concept of exacted revenge, and Dante masterfully guides it in Canto XIX, as things are turned around, over and upside down with cruel yet delightful irony. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Inferno XVIII: Fecal Matter














Inferno XVIII: Fecal Matter
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Dante has arrived in the eighth circle of Inferno, in the first of ten pouches (ditches) called the malebolge (translated as “evil pouches”). Here he witnesses a band of panderers (pimps, flatterers, et al), tormented by demons as they move in procession along the floor of the valley His gaze is arrested by the sight of one pathetic sinner whom he recognizes, covered with a thick layer of excrement.

*    *    *

Dante’s cruel sarcasm is on full display in his exchange with Alessio Interminei of Lucca, a flatterer who asks Dante why he feels compelled to stare him down more than the others. The retort is mean-spirited and antagonistic:

"Why, if I remember,

I saw you once before with dry hair.
You are Alessio Interminei of Lucca,
so I study you more than all the others.”

Dante’s towering literary reputation sometimes overshadows his arrogance and cruelty. He can be a tool, but he’s still funny as shit.

This is a shitty drawing in more ways than one. I’m pleased enough with the bottom half, but the top surrenders itself to whimsy, my eternal predilection. Not that whimsy can't be terrifying. Just ask the two foolish children who, lured by promises of treacle tarts by the androgynous, superficially mirthful Child Catcher, met sudden, horrifying entrapment in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, BangThe bottom of my drawing is certainly whimsical, but there is to me more perversity in the characterizations and the way lines, visual hierarchy, and other formal/design decisions contribute to a sense of severe agony in its figures. I need to do something about the demons—they’re a bit more like characters from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show than the fierce antagonists they’re meant to be. Maybe I’ll simply obfuscate them in an inky cloud. Things are scarier when you can’t quite see them.

I need to study how imagery evolves this way for me, how some parts go wrong while other parts seem to fall in place almost effortlessly (although I should be careful to say that nothing ever feels effortless); how sketches sometimes seem more essential and honest than finished drawings or, conversely, how finished drawings finesse the seeds of simple ideas into more sophisticated form. I had a wonderful student once, Matt Leines, who had undertaken an independent study project with me. We met every week to discuss his ideas, and I recall at one point he came to me with an expression of frustration. He had a sketch—small and in a notebook—and he had a finished illustration—a bit larger. His question was simple: “why doesn’t this look like that?” In other words, what was it about the sketch that he had been unable to apprehend in the finished image? We went round and round and—apart from the typical technical explanations (eg.: perhaps his use of mediums didn’t translate well at larger scale and on a different substrate?) I think we ultimately decided that sometimes the honest impulse for mark-making, the exploration of form and meaning in its most naive, open and meandering mode of drawing and painting, is impossible to replicate.

So, some things turn to shit.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Inferno XVII: The Face of A Just Man



























Inferno XVII: The Face of A Just Man
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In this canto, Dante and Virgil meet Geryon, the winged monster of fraud, who rises from the abyss to transport them downward, from the edge of towering cliffs to the eighth circle of Inferno.


*    *    *

Geryon is an ancient mythic character whose early appearance in Greek myth bears little resemblance to the 14th century monster Dante created for Canto XVII of L’Inferno. Often freely transforming characters from history and literature (King Minos of Crete, for example, in Canto V, is transmogrified into a beastly guardian of hell with a serpent’s tail) Dante’s poetic license never fails to deliver with absolute potency the moral lessons he most wants to convey. And, truth be told, it’s easy to accept that once a character enters the underworld, just about anything can happen. Kings grow tails and mythic Greek monsters change costume.

The story is about to dedicate itself to the world of sins collectively known as fraud, a particularly detestable offense in Dante’s estimation. The eighth circle features the Malebolge, a sequence of ten ditches wherein fester perpetrators of all classes of fraud: panderers and seducers; flatterers, simoniacs (those who sold ecclesiastical favors); sorcerers; barrators (corrupt politicians); hypocrites; thieves; counsellors of fraud; sowers of discord; and falsifiers.

Geryon is described as the “foul effigy of fraud,” and this is expressed in his chimeric corporeality: he has a reptilian body, lavishly decorated and resembling a middle-eastern carpet. His arms are hairy and a deadly scorpion’s tail is concealed at the end of his enormous body. But his most fraudulent attribute is his deceptive visage: “the face of a just man.” 

Throughout La Commedia, Dante integrates significant use of the number three in imagery, structure and narrative. Robert Hollander brilliantly discusses Geryon as one of the most cleverly crafted metaphors of the poem: “This embodiment of fraud is thus presented as the counterfeit of Christ, three-in-one rather than one-in-three.”

I really loved making this drawing—the scale of the monster is extremely exaggerated in my conception, much bigger than I’ve seen him represented in the precedents I researched. And, on a technical note, somehow the pen behaved itself (for once) and I was able to pull it off to my satisfaction.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Inferno XVI: Getting Personal with the Sodomites



























Inferno XVI: Getting Personal with the Sodomites
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Continuing his engagement with the depraved yet beloved souls in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, Dante chats with some comical characters, a trio of Florentine sodomites.


*    *    *

Brunetto Latini is left behind, and Virgil encourages Dante to stop and talk to a group of sodomites whose eccentric behavior is alternately absurd and endearing. The main speaker identifies himself as Jacopo Rusticucci, and his friends as Guido Guerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi. Highly regarded by Dante in life, these three Florentines were Guelphs who discouraged engagement in battle. The trio behaves with erratic absurdity, joining hands and running in circles as a sort of human wheel as they attempt to dodge the burning flakes of flame. They’re badly charred from their eternal exposure to fire. They question Dante about the state of Florentine politics.

Curiously, as Robert Hollander points out, it’s surprising and very odd that Dante once again treats a group of typically reviled sinners (sodomites) with such affection and respect, just as he did Brunetto Latini in Canto XV. It’s a puzzling aspect of the narrative, this graciousness bestowed upon homosexuals, but there you have it.

I made two versions of this drawing, the first (below, the only bit of it left after destroying it in my use of the ugly mess of paper as an ink blotter) being a complete failure after two full days of toil. I’m still a little unsure why I disliked it so much, but my conviction was profound enough to compel me to start again. I suspect my displeasure came from the lack of energy in the composition—the three guys simply formed a circle dropped in the center of the image. It was also a little too silly in my opinion, despite the relative levity of the scene described by Dante. 





















As a 21st century sodomite, I’m much happier with the second, final iteration (top), perhaps because it became an opportunity for some personal critical commentary—a little jab at the bearded Boston bros who desperately cultivate an A-list image. Having hacked away of late at the jungle that is gay dating I think I’ve developed an ability to spot these guys pretty quickly. Most have the requisite muscles and beards—slaves to the trends that elicit a sort of conformist desire. Their Instagram feeds possess an exquisitely balanced ratio of sexy photos of themselves in the gym, sensitive shots of them lovingly playing with dogs or nieces or nephews alongside nocturnal images of Ptown weekends with the boys. Lots of teeth and tank tops. They overcompensate with abundant expressions of interest in sports and beer. They seem friendly, happy. They describe themselves openly as “laid back,” but their grimaces vaguely indicate a deeper underlying anxiety. 

What draws these men to places like Boston, with its competitive, cold, gay subculture? A desperate need for tribal belonging paired with a desire to be desired? Hell bent on transcending, once and for all, lonely childhoods filled with rejection? Tough to say, but so many of these men seem damaged by the time they’re 40, eating themselves alive as they inch toward late middle age.