|Briar Rose, the Frog Prince & Other Old Stories
6 of 13 are shown here.
When I started this series of paintings and drawings, I wanted to make them more directly personal than my previous work. Something more like the Blues or the Country-Western music I grew up with or like early Chinese love poems. And, at the same time, something like the work of the early Renaissance Sienese painter, the Osservanza Master, whose small paintings have a haunting intensity.
I have worked on these paintings for over 10 years. But it wasn't until the writer Holly Anderson introduced me to the mesostic, a poetic form invented by composer and painter John Cage, that I found the missing piece I needed to complete the work.
The mesostic was first used by Cage as a key to unlock the language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The subject of the poem is written in a vertical and then there are simple rules that determine how the poem attaches itself to the totem. So for Parsifal:
For me, the conceit of the form is unapologetically simplesomething small and cheap and plastic that says just what it means.
The poems are taped to the surface of the paintings like prayers tied to a Tibetan prayer wheel or stuffed into a wall or cast to the wind.
Detail: Osservanza Master. St. Anthony in the Wilderness, c. 1430
These large-scale works on paper were completed over 20 years ago, but they were never shown except in smaller versions. They were water-damaged and I lost all of the shaped pieces and half of the ground sections and these have never been replaced. This year I will begin to update and revamp them.
The imagery and feel of these works came from 2 back to back dreams:
In the first, I was standing looking out across a valley when the whole world exploded, a voice said that my job was to stand at the center of the maelstrom until all slowed and came back into focus. After a time the earth came back into being but everything was newly placed, what had been foreground became middle, et. al. Then, still in the dream, I met a sexy young truck driver, travelled with him to Spain and finally married into an aristocratic Spanish family, but by this time, I was in 16th Century Spain. Still in my wedding dress, we migrated to Mexico where we came ashore on the beach at Campeche.
In the second dream, again, in the 16th Century, I was a monk singing jazz improvizations to medieval church canons and a voice said, "So there you have it, the Campeche Canons" ...
The Campeche Canons had its fans, but no one would show them. (How do you sell them? And, the scale, paper, the color! And, then, getting people to come to my Brooklyn studio in 1984 ...). The poet Brooks Haxton wrote a poem about them ("Campeche Canons") that was included in a collection of his poems, TRAVELING COMPANY, and Knopf used one of my paintings for the cover (though not from Campeche).
But, for those who did make it to my studio, this work elicted some extreme responses. Through a friend, a prominent Italian art dealer (a man in his 70s who died quite some time ago) came to look and said "powerful, sumptuous, but it doesn't look like a woman has done this" ... . He was clearly a bit offended by the work which mystified me. But he was even more offended when he realized that even the bits underneath the large traveling shapes (the figures in my mind -- landscape as persona) which hung over the ground were all completed. It frustrated him that he couldn't see the painting beneath and he suggested that I build structures so that I could hang the shapes far enough in front of the ground so that "he" could better see the whole. He said the work made him feel "led on" and "cheated". I told him that I assumed that he had a body under those nice clothes, but I didn't expect he should be compelled to show it to me -- it was his business. He was such an elegant man and "of an age" AND Italian, after all ... I should have been more gracious.
© caroline beasley-baker. 2008.