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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Inferno XV: An Unexpected Reunion



























Inferno XV: An Unexpected Reunion
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Once Virgil has completed his lengthy parable of the Old Man of Crete, our heroes forge ahead in the seventh circle, eventually crossing paths with a gang of sodomites—those who have perpetrated violence against nature. At this juncture, Dante exchanges greetings with the mentor and guardian of his youth, Brunetto Latini.


*    *    *


Inferno XV features one of the oddest and least understood placements of personalities. This is the realm of the sodomites,  those nasty gents whose buggery has doomed them to the scalding sands of the seventh circle, eternally dodging flakes of flame that rain from the sky. Dante is shocked to encounter a beloved figure from his past, a gentleman named Brunetto Latini, who guided Dante for many years, intellectually, socially and morally. He greets Dante with a mix of joy, affection and desperation. But why is Brunetto—a revered and beloved figure in the life of Dante—punished so cruelly? He is condemned to a fate reserved for sodomites and yet there is no historical evidence that he was himself  homosexual, nor is there any revealing discussion of this confusing placement embedded in the dialogue.

The conception of this illustration came very naturally, as the starting point is rich: the potent irony of Dante, once the student, reversing roles with a former authoritative father figure (and I have to admit that I wondered if Brunetto’s appearance here was a way of hinting that some previously concealed and inappropriate man-boy dynamic existed); the somewhat desperate way that Brunetto reaches up to grasp Dante’s robe, and the possible erotic inferences in that movement. I felt as if my task here was to reference an unspoken (and still uncertain) past between the two characters, avoiding explicit commitment to anything sketchy but leaving open a few possibilities. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Inferno XIV: The Old Man of Crete

















Inferno XIV: The Old Man of Crete
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

A fantastic interlude occurs in the fourteenth canto of L’Inferno as Virgil revives imagery from Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, an image of a giant statue made from various materials, from precious and strong on the top to crumbling clay at the bottom.

*    *    *

After leaving the Forest of Suicides Dante and Virgil traverse the burning sands of the the seventh circle of hell. Their conversation is set aside for a time as Virgil relates the allegory of the Old Man of Crete, an image borrowed from the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which the great King Nebudchadnezzar is visited by a dream of a giant statue, metaphorically composed of various materials—strong to weak, precious to worthless. In Virgil’s description the statue is an enormous colossus, emerging from the side of Mount Ida in Crete. 

The statue’s back faces Egypt, heretofore the world’s dominant society, and looks to Rome in deference to Christian rule. As a symbol of humanity’s crumbling moral and political fortitude it has a head of gold, arms and breast made of silver, bronze abdomen and thighs, and iron legs. His right foot, upon which he rests most of his weight, is made of crumbling, kiln baked clay, a symbol of the deteriorating institution of the medieval Catholic Church. He cries tears (through cracks in his body, not as I have depicted it in the illustration) which on the ground below create the four rivers of Inferno: Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon and Cocytus. 


This is my favorite drawing so far, in part because of the sheer complexity of the image I needed to make. I relied a bit on ancient conceptions of Nebudchadnezzar is developing the costume and styling of hair and beard (see below), and really enjoyed interpreting the various active aspects of the image, finding concise and iconic ways to indicate is gaze, the tears, the geography, and materiality.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Inferno XIII: The Forest of Suicides

















Inferno XIII: The Forest of Suicides
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In the second ring of the seventh circle of hell, Virgil encourages Dante to pluck a twig from a thorn tree. Our hero is shocked to discover that the tree is an unnamed suicide, whose plaintive cries and oozing black blood reveal the collective fate of the entire forest.


*    *    *

As Dante and Virgil enter the second of three rings in the Circle of the Violent, they encounter the fate of those who do violence to themselves. Disembodied moans surround them and Virgil tells Dante that if he were to pluck a twig from one of the mangled trees, he might learn the story.

Dante does so, and—weeping with despair and oozing black blood—the tree ultimately unravels his story. He walked the earth as Pier della Vigna, counselor to the Emperor Frederick II. Vigna’s fated suicide was in a strange way the result of his fierce dedication and love for Frederick. His contemporaries grew envious of their close relationship and they circulated ugly rumors, causing him great shame, despair and—ultimately—death by his own hand.


In search of a different language for this drawing, I’ve developed something more of a design. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Inferno XII: The Minotaur




















Inferno XII: The Minotaur
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In Canto XII, Dante and Virgil descend a steep slope and encounter at the bottom the mythic Minotaur, a beast with the head of a bull and body of a man. They are in the first ring of the Circle of the Violent, that which holds those who have committed violence against others.

*    *    *

The carnal essence of the Minotaur has alternately thrilled and terrified me since my earliest years. If there's an embodiment of the anxiety I experienced in a sexually repressed childhood (and much of adulthood) it would be this creature, with the physique of a dangerously muscled, hyper-masculine man, topped off with a smoky black bull's head, its dark features obscured by shadows and fur. The half-man/half-beast trope permeated my already anxious brain in many incarnations—including that of a lizard-man known as a Gorn, battling Captain Kirk on Star Trek. It was also fodder for a shitload of bad dreams. In retrospect, it's ridiculous that I would have been afraid of a guy in a plastic reptile suit, gingerly tossing fake punches at William Shatner, but it really did terrify me as a five year-old. 

A little history: I grew up with crippling self-consciousness about my body. I thought that my morbid shyness about it was in some way an index to inferior masculinity, and it remained with me until I first had sex in college. I dreaded going to the beach, turned down many a pool party invitation.  It's dissipated over the years and these days I'm pretty relaxed about my body (although there's certainly a ridiculously flawed logic to feeling less self-conscious about the body I have at 54). 

It started with my budding awareness of myself as a sexual being, I think, and that must have been at about age seven or eight. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in the South, I was at all times surrounded by boys who ran shirtless, dirty and unashamed of their bodies, and I both admired and feared their masculinity. Our equality (or perhaps my sense of intellectual superiority—I had what most of them didn't have, or at least I thought I did) existed only above the shoulders. No qualms about showing my head—it was a nice head, not bad looking, and it had nothing to do with sexuality. Funny things came out of my mouth from time-to-time, and I liked to show off with my face. The anxiety reached its peak in middle and high school years, when the same boys began to regard themselves as post-pubescent studs, exacerbating my insecurities.

But when you put a fecund, ferocious animal's head on an already sexualized, brutal body—primed to do violence against sensitive men—you eradicate intellect. Its mind has been supplanted with thoughtless force, and that's pretty scary.


When I began this drawing, I was reminded of the many depictions I had seen over the years, all of which used the body of the Minotaur to echo beastly savagery, a fitting partner to the bull's head. But, from the start, my impulse was to allow the body to be gently erotic, youthful and delicately drawn with lines that virtually disappear into the page. A grateful nod to Aubrey Beardsley, absolutely, but I hope it's more than imitation of a stylistic convention. I suppose it could have been driven by a latent enjoyment of male nudity, or maybe it's a taming of the beast that scared me so much as a boy. Not sure.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Inferno XI: The Circle of the Violent

















Inferno XI: The Circle of the Violent
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Canto XI is one of the more pedantic parts of L'Inferno. Dante and Virgil descend to the seventh circle, housing those who have committed violent acts in life. It is subdivided into three smaller rings to accommodate sinners who are guilty of various classifications of violence.

*    *    *

The violent are punished in a variety of ways, depending on the transgressions they committed on earth. The seventh circle is sub-divided into three rings, each of which metes out a unique punishment. In the first ring, flooded by a river of blood, those who have committed violence against God and nature languish eternally. These are the plunderers, murderers and thieves who once corrupted the earth. The second ring is reserved for those who committed violence against themselves. Ingeniously, Dante conceives of a forest of suicides, wherein sinners have been transmogrified into talking, thorny threes, oozing blood. The third ring is for those who have perpetrated violence against their neighbors, including blasphemers and usurers, who suffer eternally in a desert of burning sands. Virgil explains that fraud is the greatest of sins in this circle, because it is the transgression most unique to mankind.

The eleventh canto is unique in its instructive tone, with a large portion devoted to Virgil's explanation of how the circle is subdivided, classified and populated. I had a couple of goals in mind in structuring this picture: depiction of dialogue as key to its substance (the face-to-face, plain as day positioning of the two heroes), and a didactic representation of the three rings concentrically arranged—the river of blood, the suicide trees and the burning sands. I liken it to a conversation between teacher and pupil, poised before a diagram.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Inferno X: Farinata degli Uberti
















Inferno X: Farinata degli Uberti
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In one of the most theatrical and haunting moments of L'Inferno, Dante is recognized by Farinata degli Uberti, a Florentine military leader and politician. In passing an expanse of flaming sarcophagi, Dante is stopped by the voice of a fellow Florentine, who recognizes his Tuscan accent. The two have a little chat about Florence, their families and honor.

*    *    *

In the sixth circle of Hell, we meet two of the heretics damned to remain there, including Farinata, whose family feuded with Dante's in Florence. Farinata recognizes Dante's Tuscan accent and, rising eerily from his sarcophagus, he engages him in debate about the honor of their respective families. 

Early on, in the Gates of Hell illustration, I first integrated an iconic reference to Florence in the fleur-de-lis, and I've attempted to revive it here in the silhouette created by Farinata's figure and the flames bursting from all sides of his body as he rises from the grave. Additionally, much has been made of the imagery Dante evokes in Farinata's pose. Seen from the waist up he has reminded many a scholar of the Man of Sorrows, a trope of the newly resurrected Christ, displaying the wounds of crucifixion with profound grief. In this image, Christ is represented as both dead (as man) and alive (as God).





Thursday, February 2, 2017

Inferno IX: The Furies at the Gates of Dis






















Inferno IX: The Furies at the Gates of Dis
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”


Arriving at the gates of the city of Dis, Dante and Virgil are accosted by three furies, minions of Medusa. 

*    *    *

Dante and Virgil meet some formidable foes in the furies, Greek figures of vengeance with bat wings and snakes for hair, who carried instruments of torture and punishment: a whip, a chalice of poison and a torch. They hover at the gates of Dis, a walled city whose architecture included mosques (presumably inspired by Jerusalem of the 14th century). Because Islam was a relatively new religion—considered heresy in the eyes of the Church and was certainly not Christianity—its monuments were fitting features of a city whose primary descriptive elements contradict conceptions of Paradiso.