Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Soul On Ice {Inuit Girls Gone Wild!}

In 1987 President Reagan arranged for the remains of Black Explorer Matthew Henson and his wife to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery right along side the grave of his fellow explorer:Robert Peary. This honor may have given a sense of over-due justice and closure to many present but Robert Peary would not have been one of them . Despite his new neighbor's decades as a faithful travel companion through more thick than thin, following their ultimate triumph :arriving at the North Pole,Peary snubbed Henson and did all in his power to minimize his share of the laurels, even denying him membership in the Explorers Club of which he was president. Henson was heart sick but there was historic precedence . Lewis and Clark brought Clark's slave York with them on their trek to the Pacific. Upon returning to the East all in the party received generous land grants and official positions, except York. His only aide de memoire of the trip was his frostbitten penis{a malady that occurred while traversing the aptly named Bitteroot Mts.}Returned to slave status York became so"restive and sulky" that Clark found it necessary to "trounce " him. En route to their rendezvous with destiny both Henson and Peary sired Eskimo sons . It's fascinating to speculate about the genesis of this imbroglio. Peter Fruechen would doubtless dismiss this as an awkward propitiating act of sexual diplomacy by the boys, a doffing of their fur hats to Eskimo etiquette. I, agreeing with Zorba that "God hates half a devil ten times more than an archdevil" suspect our two itinerant Onans were wantonly answering the call of the wild ,drinking copious amounts of whatever eskimos have found to be fermentable {* Peary did eventually die from Cirrhosis} and enjoying the liberating effects of being off the map. Oddly , the relative egalitarianism enjoyed by both York and Henson while in the wilds ended at the gates of the city. Somehow against the backdrop of a different habitat Chameleon-like their aspect was perceived to change.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Shogun of Swat,The Dypsomaniacal Daimyo of the Diamond

No culture has assigned a higher value to aesthetics than that fashioned by the Japanese. Even when committing ritual suicide {Seppuku ,Hara Kiri} you ran the risk of adding "Philistine" to whatever original infraction got you into your present pickle if your performance did not include preparations guaranteeing that your soon to be disemboweled and beheaded remains fell into a balanced, tasteful and interesting assemblage. An extraordinary sensuous refinement is evident in all the Japanese arts. I particularly favor the Ukiyoe prints which are studies in feeling and parsimonious expression. The Culture that produced a people capable of such delicately nuanced sensibilities went into decline in the late 1860s when power was "restored" to a central government under the Mejii emperor{See Tom Cruise-Last Samurai} and a "Life for Art's Sake" philosophy was supplanted by industrialization and militarism. However, artistic temperament was a deeply ingrained national characteristic and much of the old sensibility still remained when the brawling, stogie chomping, beerified Babe arrived in Yokohama Harbor aboard The Empress of Japan. A major theme explored in my work is just such clashes of culture. St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys to which truancy and petty crime had earned Ruth a berth for most of his youth had not provided him with many opportunities to explore his sensitive side. In many ways Ruth was the quintessential "Ugly American" and one would expect that The Babe's bawdy, hyper- extroverted style would have horrified a people as standoffish and reserved as the Japanese. It was Nov. 2, 1934; Ruth had just ended his relationship with The NY Yankees and had joined an All American-AllStar team touring the Orient along with Lou Gehrig ,Jimmy Foxx , Lefty Gomez and others. Tens of thousands of Japanese brought traffic to a standstill attempting to see the Babe as he road down the Ginza in an open touring car waving Old Glory in one hand and the Rising Sun in the other. The frenzied crush was such that 600 people needed to be hospitalized .Record crowds packed the two stadiums where the American team played college and Japanese pro teams. Ruth was a big hit in Japan and before departing amended the Confucian moral code when he told Japanese reporters "There are no bad people among lovers of baseball."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Castro, Trujillo and the amoral Lilliputian

Choosing Fidel Castro as a subject is not meant to confer admiration on him or his regime. In Politics everything militates against longevity; an unmovable object like Fidel can be held in place only by a cunning, ruthless, cynical tyranny. Trujillo over in the Dominican Republic is usually celebrated as the Arch-Demon in the Caudillo Hierarchy. His "Security" force was led by the infamous Johnny Abbes who purportedly had as an assistant a dwarf named Snowball whose skill-set consisted of chewing off the testicles of politically obtuse citizens. After Trujillo was gunned down Abbes and his stunted acolyte escaped into Haiti where they hoped Papa Doc would have jobs for 1 and 1/2 out-of-work Zombies. Even with the enthusiastic support from the far right of the Lilliputian community{Los Lilliputianos}Trujillo lasted a mere 31 years. Castro came to power in 1959. Do the Math! For some inexplicable reason monsters from the political Left are warmly regarded by many people in our society who should know better. Castro's enforcer, the much mythologized Che Guevara was every bit as much the psychopath as Snowball. Given the same favorable press the wardrobes of college students and many of their professors would include tee- shirts with romanticized images of Snowball's visage emblazoned on them. For almost as long as I can remember Castro has been a part of the background on the stage upon which I have lived my life. He may be a demon but he's a familiar demon and figures into many of my memories. These Baseball pictures that feature him depict games between The Rochester Red Wings and The Havana Sugar Kings. Following the success of the revolution it was very fashionable for young Cubans to dress in fatigues and carry weapons, unfortunately even when crowding into the stands at a ball game. In one of these games Red Wing 3rd base coach, Frank Verde and Sugar King shortstop, Leo Cardenas received superficial gunshot wounds while on the field and play was curtailed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nostalgia for the Mau Mau

My introductory Post might lead some to believe that I co-authored the King James version of the Bible. While I admit to occasional eruptions of Calvinist sensibilities most people who know me would say that I was rather too loosely as opposed to too tightly wrapped. In all future posts I will attempt a more conversational and measured tone. Seeing the word "Kikuyu" on the front of the NY Times again has caused a wave of nostalgia to wash over me.As a child I was enchanted with all things African. I enjoyed imagining my eventual arrival in some jungle village deep in the interior,sometimes as a beloved Maryknoll priest and sometimes as a fearsome Mercenary {and sometimes as Tarzan}. The proscription on sex for Catholic priests was a hurdle I knew I couldn't jump and no intellectual dodges around it came readily to mind. Mercenaries in the Congo were too frequently photographed surrounded by human skulls and body parts raising doubts about their suitability as wholesome chums. Other role options came to mind. Kennedy was starting that Peace Corps but I was a city kid and couldn't plant a goddamn thing. That fantasy always ended with me becoming a pathetic burden on my adoptive village and needing to be wrapped in mosquito netting and carried by litter to the coast where I would narrowly survive the malaria and Dengue by being flushed several times with quinine. But back to the Kikuyu. One of the authors irresponsibly fueling "dark continent" fantasies at the time was Robert Ruark.He too exhibited elements of a split personality.{*note to psychiatric community-you fuckers claim that Split- personality is a rare disorder. My own interpersonal relationships suggest that you cant swing a dead cat without hitting a genuine "Multiple"}. Mr. Ruark divided {split} his writing time between stories about dirty little wars and saccharine tales about a boy and his grandpa that evoked a world-view shared by no-one except his doppelganger in the visual arts: Norman Rockwell. Ruark had started spending time in Kenya after WW2 and wrote a mesmerizing account of The Mau Mau uprising entitled Something of Value. I was a barely passing student at Immaculate Conception Grade School at the time but it wasn't so much that I was stupid as I preferred to write my own Syllabus,{less math, more Mau Mau} and Something of Value dominated my own required reading list. I was extremely tickled to discover that as of just a couple of years ago Kenya's official website featured a scathing indictment of Ruark's book claiming it gave the "British" perspective of their "Independence " struggle. They're still pissed off 50 years after publication of a now forgotten book. Even stranger is the fact that it was deeply sympathetic to the Kikuyu, the tribe from which the Mau Mau membership arose. The British were so pissed off at it's publication that they barred Ruark from British East Africa {Kenya,Tanganyika} all together. Since Kenyan independence in 64 the Kikuyu have politically and economically kept their boot on the necks of their Luo minority. Thanks to Mwai Kibaki whose latest antics triggered this trip down memory lane. It also hints at the genesis of the Mau Mau painting seen on my site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Dutch painter Sandor Torday has said that the way a person chooses a painting is perhaps similar to the way he or she chooses a mate; there may be factors comprehensible only to the one making the choice and thus attempts to influence or interfere are inappropriate. Factors both comprehensible and incomprehensible are familiar ground to many artists. Most artists and collectors are initially drawn to painting by it's immediate sensuous appeal or by the very real magic of seeing flesh and bone and space and a myriad of other phenomena appear on a surface under the slight inflections of a pencil or brush. Things of this world beautifully felt and beautifully expressed in a medium are worthy motives and will continue to move people as long as images are created.Some artists however begin to suspect that these more accessible pleasures obscure some mysterious "something"of far greater value residing below the surface. This suspicion may arise while studying a masterwork ;hidden gestalts begin to emerge like ghosts from the pictures surface and then re-submerge to be followed by other apparitions of an ordering spirit. This numinous presence becomes the obsession; what is it's nature and by what alchemy is it coaxed into existence? Visual confections and fashion enjoy little consideration here. Mystery is a potent aphrodisiac. If you have never felt inexplicably aroused in front of a Cezanne landscape you're not looking hard enough. I've been fortunate; ordinary daily life has always struck me as so unnervingly miraculous that I have reflexively sought to steal a glimpse of "that immortal hand that framed all this fearful symmetry" . As a young man War seemed a likely place to look.Fighting in the mountains and valleys along the Laotian border I discovered that my assumption had been correct. The suspicion that the quest could continue through the vehicle of art has also proven correct. For this ,my first blog I am choosing to end with a statement that I wrote in 1988 to accompany an exhibition of my Vietnam War paintings in Albany N.Y. War, for better or worse,forces on man whole realms of psychic experience that otherwise would not figure into the consciousness of the race. There would be no Apocalypse, no heart of Darkness,no dark side. The paratroopers of the 2/327,101st Airborne Div. fought in the mountains of I Corps and,if vastly different species of experience were to be had, the cloud hidden summits of the Annamese Cordillera were custom-made. Had you magically walked into a stylized Chinese landscape painting, you could not have felt more separated from everything you had known up to that time. Every detail conspired to create a sense of dream-like unreality: the jungle, the heat, the leeches, the fear, the physical exhaustion,the violence and death effected a macabre apostasy. Never one to do things half way I eventually walked into a North Vietnamese ambush in the mountains west of Hue. After three cardiac arrests and 39 pints of blood, the doctors of the 22nd Surgical Group pulled me through. I cannot explain in Terrestrial terms, the states of mind I experienced those three weeks on the USS Repose; small devils visited my bunk daily. Sometimes they menaced and sometimes performed a kind of theater before me. Apparitions and visions of all kinds tormented me;but the worst,the very worst was when I descended into a sinister vacuum which only religious metaphors about the loss of God's love could begin to describe. Even the devils didn't follow me there. Although sometimes disquieting all these experiences have served me as an artist. They assured me of the depth and complexity of the human spirit and gave me an idea of the dimensions,the measurements of it's experience. Regardless of subject matter I think all my pictures reflect qualities that took root or were fertilized as a result of the Vietnam experience. The primitive,dreamlike images; admittedly so unrelated to the modern art scene,convey something of the inner life of this ex-paratrooper. John Wolfe,Former Sergeant 101st Airborne Div.