What Came First, the bed time story or the nightmare?

Posted by on Sep 6, 2016 in Art History, Behind the Artwork | No Comments

We should think twice before approaching amateur or professional couches to answer this question. A childhood fed by fairy tales, enlarged by the steroidal effects of Hollywood or Disney can lead to some pretty freaky stuff. An adult redo of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic might include: “Good night obsessive compulsive disorder”, “Good night electra complex”, “Good night existential fear of death”… Psychoactive doors, once opened, are hard to shut. Careful people rarely open them. Keeping them shut, however, does limit, if not completely obstruct, healthy adulthood.

I abandoned formal Freudian or Jungian analysis after graduate school. In spite of this, my most satisfying paintings dip into a rich stream of symbolic narratives. I search constantly for stories and images to structure my work. The poems, paintings, novels, movies, sculptures, and even real people I seek out all add to a bizarre collection of deeply rooted myths. The resulting archetypes have helped populate Bunny’s World. This process takes me across the globe and into several circles beyond and within conscious perception. A high school friend’s analysis of Bunny’s world was fairly concise: “wow. cool. I’m kind of creeped out by these. is that ok?” This is a woman who has traveled to Africa to help combat Ebola. I did not think anything could shake her.

Totem animals are usually creatures that come to symbolize a group of people over many years, sometimes thousands of years. This process takes time because it’s a complex set of images knit together by evolving ideas that collectively come to tell a very interesting story. Gods, goddesses, saints and other minor mythological characters perform a similar function. I first encountered the Libyan Sibyl in a 9th grade Art History class on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling fresco cycle. Before this, a sibyl was just a crazy lady who sat on a special stool in a cave over a steaming fissure, waiting for people to ask her important questions. The Libyan Sibyl, however, was much more than a creepy lady. She reaches for a book as she perches delicately on the edge of a hidden support. Her delicate toes that peek from underneath layers of intense orange, white and peach silk are a lovely contrast to her well muscled back. She looks down in profile to make certain of the unknown. This daughter of Zeus and grand-daughter of Poseidon foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

What the Sibyl RevealsEver since that class, I’ve wanted to paint the Libyan Sibyl. For Bunny, this sibyl reveals what is hidden by parting clouds. Her male counterpart on the opposite side of the sky is a more mysterious character I did not meet until much later in life. The deer dancer is part of Native American ritual. The Yaqui tribe originally danced this performance on nights before a hunt. As a gesture of gratitude for the deer’s sacrifice, the hunt is enacted through rhythmic music and movement. The ritual is intended to transport the participants from the Enchanted World to the Flower World called Seyewailo. Yaquis believe in the existence of several parallel worlds. This ritual dance (pahko) explores two of them. The first is the source of dark supernatural power, while the other is the source of beauty and harmony. “It is thought to be located beneath the dawn in a place filled with flowers, water, and natural abundance of all kinds.” The deer dancer is wounded, yet continues to dance his heart out as he spirals toward death.

Deer Man Comparison

What the Libyan Sibyl and the Deer Dancer reveal for Bunny is not distinct. In fact, it is not entirely clear that Bunny is even aware of her celestial guides. What she is aware of, however, is a shattered mirror. It’s no accident, as she is the one who is holding the hammer. The calla lilies and leaves border the scene, carefully unfurling like rolls of parchment recording the wreckage. The shock reverberates in Bunny’s reflected face as the spider cracks spread. It’s hard to resist the cliché “omlets are not made without breaking eggs”, which was coined by a French Royal Counter Revolutionary responsible for thousands of deaths in 1796. A voyage into Seyewailo is equally fraught with casualties: expectations, hopes, dreams and more.

Cracked Mirror Detail

In the revealed, blue distance beyond the world of flowers and clouds is a woman– a very real woman who did much more than bear witness. Artists are funny creatures who like to leave their mark hidden within many other marks. I take my cue in this performance from many others, including Michelangelo. He was not so generous in painting himself within the Last Judgement fresco. This later work is on the wall below the ceiling where the Libyan Sibyl is perched. He has included himself on the right, the side of the damned, as the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. In my more humble painting, although I am not disfigured, I do try to blend into vapor.

Artist Face Comparison

Convoluted iconography, rich with symbolism and history, is essential to my work. I use my painting as therapy to examine dreams and lived experience. Just as the Yaqui deer dancer, the performance allows me to evolve into another version of myself. In the safety of painting, I open many doors that would otherwise stay shut. Most often this is a selfish process that only benefits me, but I secretly hope this painting would do more. If even one other person is curious enough to see into their own Flower World, then I have truly made a work of art.

Chiaro, acrylic on wood panel, 2016 by Nancy Polo.

Chiaro, acrylic on wood panel, 2016 by Nancy Polo.

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