Thursday, February 28, 2008

#3 of Top Ten: "Fire" (part I)

“Fire” 1994
Woodblock relief print
7 3/4 x 10 1/4”
Edition of 25

In telling about the print, “Fire”, I first have to give some background on the “Earthdiver” images that I’ve completed. “Fire” is part of what became an unintentional trio of prints that includes “Earthdiver” and “Inspiration”. I say unintentional because when I finished the “Earthdiver” print I felt the story of the figure in the bottom of the boat begged to be expanded upon. “Fire is the second image produced for the trio.

In 1993 I painted the first incarnation of the image influenced by the Earthdiver myth. That particular painting sold right out of my studio before the paint could dry (the only time that’s ever happened!) The sale was so sudden that I felt I still needed to work the image out. A few months later I created the “Earthdiver” print which eventually led to “Fire”.

The story of the Earthdiver is an ancient Native American creation/flood myth. After the inundation some surviving animals floating on a raft take turns diving to the bottom of the ocean. At the urging of one of their number (usually a bird) they attempt to retrieve some earth in order to create land. Many try and many fail until one creature, usually a small mammal, comes back half dead with a tiny bit of mud under it’s claws. This is sufficient material to create the landmass for them to recreate their world. My intention in the painting and later in the print was to anthropomorphize the creatures in the flood myth.

At the time I was thinking of the Earthdiver tale as a metaphor for the creative process. The struggle to dive the depths of the unconscious, scrape the subconscious and bring back some rich silt to grow one’s ideas on can be a difficult, tiring and sometimes fatal process. (Suddenly, I’m reminded of John Goodman running down a burning hallway yelling “I’ll show you the life of the MIND!) There are many ways the myth can be interpreted.

The figure at the bottom of the boat in “Earthdiver” represents the tired or dead creature that has failed in the first attempts to bring back the prima materia. In “Fire” there is, once again, a figure in the bottom of a leaky boat. We stare down his/her legs as if they were our own while a male figure crouches on the seat board manipulating a stick in an attempt to start a fire. The tunnel through which the boat travels is decorated in glyphs from various ages of Meso-American history. Each level is meant to represent one of the three worlds: celestial, earth and watery underworld.

As in most of my work, there are more questions posed than answers given in this image. That’s the way I like it. I like the viewer to fill in the blanks with his/her own experience and impressions. Where are we? Is the boat coming or going? Is the figure in the bottom of the boat dead or alive? What is the purpose of the fire? Are we witnessing a healing, a funeral rite or a quickening ceremony?
(to be continued)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

#4 of Top Ten: "La Llorona"

“La Llorona” 2004
24 x 12” woodblock relief print
edition of 25

Mexican parents have been using the legend of “La Llorona” as a cautionary tale for rambling children for decades, maybe even longer. I remember being a kid and playing with my cousins long after dark out in the fields, ponds, and streams near my home. My parents, aunts and uncles would warn us “don’t stay out too late in the dark or La Llorona will take you”. If you are not familiar with the story I refer you to a pretty good account at Wikipedia ( As with any good legend, the variations are endless.

This print started as a sketch to compliment my print, “Anhelo”. In “Anhelo” a male figure plunges into the water holding an undisclosed object (see 1/10&11/08 blog entries). I knew I wanted a female figure in this work so that the two would eventually bookend a third central piece to create a triptych. Up to this point the whole triptych hasn’t materialized. The associations of the submerged female figure to the Llorona legend were obvious from the start so I decided to let them be.

By October 2003 I hadn’t yet gotten around to realizing the sketch into a finished work when I got a call from Rene Yañez, curator at SomArts ( Rene was asking if I had anything for their annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition. The theme that year was “La Llorona”. I told him I didn’t have any installations but I did have a print that he might like. He asked me to send it over…that’s when I got down to actually cutting the block and printing one up!

I dug out my sketches once more and decided that the format would have to be tall and thin to play up the depth of the water. I searched around and found a scrap of birch plywood that had an amazing wood grain on one end. The natural wood grain suggested a beautiful water ripple effect so I readjusted my sketch to work this into the new composition and drew the image straight onto the wood.

The deadline was looming close so I had to work fast. Rather than present a whole lot of time consuming detail I chose to let the flowing vegetation become a backdrop of dark flat shapes while the figure would emerge with dimension describing cross contour lines. I used rays of straight lines emanating from one vantage point to imply a light source while creating some contrast to all the organic curving shapes and lines. This method easily brought out all the wonderful wood grain texture in the block. Shifts in density of the wood grain makes the carving tool blade dig deeper in the soft areas and shallower in the hard areas. Even though the line remains straight the grain itself is responsible for the weight of line changing and accentuating the grain/water ripple effect.

Initially, the figure was going to be holding a baby but as my wife and I were expecting our second son at the time I just couldn’t bring myself to follow the legend literally. In addition, since the piece was supposed to be a companion piece to “Anhelo” I thought the ambiguousness of the “package” in the figure’s arms would keep with the intention of the other piece as well. I’d rather leave some mystery as to what the figures hold in both prints and let the viewer fill in the blanks rather than tie it to one thing. Everyone that comes to the print has his/her idea and they are all equally relevant.

The carving took a couple of days. I printed up one good print from the block, had it framed, packed it up, and sent it on its way to Rene in California where it was included in the exhibit “Bringing Light to the Darkness” at SomArts in 2003. The rest of the edition was printed later in 2004.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

5 and 6 of Top Ten

“Spacetime” 1994
wood block relief print
8 9/16 x 11 5/8”
Edition of 25

I remember reading Leonard Shlain’s “Art and Physics – Parallel Visions In Space, Time and Light” at the time that the sketch for “Spacetime” came about. I would read while doing guard duty at the CAC or while sitting nights at the Cove Café where a beautiful curly haired brunette pulled the late shift. I’d listen to the eclectic music selection while drinking coffee, beer or cocktails with the other patrons and secretly wished we were all time tripping back to Paris in the 20s. The initial sketch is scratched out on the back of a blank check lifted from the shop’s pad.

The initial idea was to present an image that would combine the ideas of particles and waves in the stream of time. This was when I was working on my underwater figures series and I think the element worked nicely with the “flow of time”. The male figure’s stance is an “as above, so below” pose. The ripples he creates on the water’s surface influence/echo the circle he’s drawing on the undulating sand.

I like the element of water as a compositional device because it can imply something working beyond the picture plane. Just as in the print “Lotus” there are various levels or worlds working simultaneously. The water current has shaped the sandy landscape, the tides along with the wind above have influenced the current and the sun far above it all casts it’s influence. The man tries to make sense of it…all in good time.

“Repression” 1994
wood block relief print
8 3/8 x 11 3/4”
Edition of 25

“Repression” presents the anima manifesting herself to the surprise of the unsuspecting repressor. What exactly the male figure is holding under water is the little mystery I like to pose wherever I can in my work.

I had been reading many of Carl Gustav Jung’s collected works, Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson” and various studies on goddess culture. The combination of similar ideas led to this image.

I am particularly proud of the way the cross contour lines create a chevron, an attribute of the Goddess, on the female figure’s torso and the way the background flattens into a screen of sorts.

“Repression” evolved and was later re-worked into the painting “Call”. In the painting the figure emerging from the background is motioning in what Joseph Campbell called the “fear not/boon bestowing” gesture.