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In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).

Hmmm…

Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Although 2020 has been a pretty alarming year in all sorts of ways, there was a silver lining: my flower garden ended up being unusually fulsome and colorful this year. Unfortunately photographs don’t really do gardens justice (just like the camera “adds 10 pounds” to portraits, it apparently subtracts 20% of blossoms and color). Even so, I think a little bit of the prettiness shows up in these pictures.

Brooklyn was appropriately rainy and not too hot. Even though I have a shade garden where barely anything grows (except for the trees which are the true stars of the show), there was still plenty of color, texture and form to keep things exciting.

Spooling through theses pictures makes me wish I had taken some shots in summer when sundry flowers were at their apex, but at least these allow you to see some of the Halloween decorations I put up (and the “Furnace Flounder” sculpture which I lugged out into the elements). I can’t believe I haven’t posted about my garden since spring (when I was busy painting watercolors back there).

The Floundering Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2018) mixed media

I don’t know what I am going to do when winter brings gray desolation to this refuge (and cracks my sculptures to pieces). I guess I can always start thinking about next year’s garden and how it could be better. For one thing, maybe I will be able to have parties again with lots of guests to enjoy it with me. In the mean time I am going to go out and soak up some of the last rays of September sun and listen to the crickets. Even this slow, messed-up year is starting to gallop by as summer dies. Maybe I will find some more pretty flower pictures to post before the frost starts though.

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Cellular Flounder goes Viral (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood and Polymer

Pursuant to the international coronavirus pandemic and the strange world of quarantine we find ourselves living in, here is an artwork I have just finished.  I made the cell/flounder sculpture last year to explore the nature of cells (which are underappreciated by everyone except for biologists…and biologists now basically only study cells, since they have recognized that they are all important).  I am always shocked at how much the diagrams of cells look like diagrams of big crazy cities.  I think there may be instructive reasons for that similarity, however it is unclear how to articulate these abstruse concepts except through the symbolic language of art.  I made the cell a flounder because that animal is my current avatar of Earth life, and since the flat oblong shape is ideal for art presentation (and because of the sad, anxious, comic eyes of course).

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I finished the cell/flounder part of the sculpture last year, but it has never struck me as complete.  The present crisis sharpened my thinking and so I added a little army of viruses which were enormously fun to make and which are cuter than they have any right to be. Admittedly these are phages rather than coronaviruses, but I find icosahedrons and spider legs more visually interesting than spheres.  It is all part of the magic of art.  As always, kindly let me know what you think and stay safe out there!  Things look a bit bleak and odd, but I wonder if we are not doing better than we recognize!  We are all trying at any rate, and we will know more soon.  Also spring will be here tomorrow (and with it, a bunch of flower posts, so there is that to look forward to).

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Original form (before the invasion)

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The Heavenly Corn Bounty (2018) Wood with Mixed Media

I got sucked into the affairs of the nation and failed to write a blog post, so here is a classic flounder sculpture I made back in 2018.  The piece is a reflection on the heavenly golden staple crop maize which fuels and feeds our nation…but it also reflects on how strange, alien, and disconcerting corn is.  The post is a way to highlight a sculpture which I made, but is also a reminder that I need to write more about maize here in the upcoming year!  For good and for ill it really is a golden staple which holds the nation together.

Also, I chose that title back in 2018, and now I can’t remember why.  Does anybody have any better suggestions? “Maize Place” maybe?

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Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

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As our republic shakes apart from corruption, incompetence, cowardice, and naked lust for power, I keep thinking about Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, a Roman politician who lived through the fall of the Republic.  Although classicists rhapsodize about Sallust’s political (and stylistic) foe, Cicero, I am no Latin grammar expert. I studied history!  So Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Although not famed for his annoying aphorisms, Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself.  My favorite zinger from him is this jewel: “Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.”

At any rate Sallust was a populare…which is to say that, although he was born in an aristocratic family, he sought the support (and broadly advocated for the welfare) of the plebiscite.  As a youth, Sallust was a famous sybarite known for excesses of sensual depravity, but he became infamously moral and censorious later in life.  This strikes me as humorous on many levels, but particularly because the high point of his political career was his term as governor of Africa Nova (what is today the coastal portion of Algeria and parts of Morocco and Tunisia).  To quote Wikipedia “As governor he committed such oppression and extortion that only Caesar’s influence enabled him to escape condemnation.”  Hahahaha…so much for all of that talk of ascetic virtue and the excesses of aristocracy.

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At any rate, what really interests me about Sallust is what he did with the stolen wealth of North Africa…which he used to build a timelessly famous garden in northeast Rome between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  The Horti Sallustiani “Gardens of Sallust” contained a temple to Venus, a vast portico, and an array of beautiful and famous sculptures–some of which have survived or been unearthed and are among the finest examples of Roman art.  Here is a little gallery of the most famous pieces.  As you can immediately see, they have had an enormous impact on western sculpture.

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“The Dying Gaul”(A Roman copy of the lost Greek original)

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“The Borghese Vase” excavated from the site of the gardens of Sallust in 1566. Napoleon bought it from his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in 1808

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The Ludovisi Throne, an enormous chair of contested origin which was discovered at the site of the Gardens of Sallust in 1887

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An aulos player on the wing of the Ludovisi Throne

The Gardens of Sallust passed to the author’s grand nephew and then became the property of the Roman emperors who kept them opened as a public amenity and added many features across a span of four centuries!  Even today, some of the original buildings and features are still extant.

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After four centuries, the gardens enter history one more time–or history entered them.  When the Goths sacked Rome it was still walled and heavily defended.  Alaric’s men laid siege to the eternal city three times.  The first two times, they were rebuffed by walls, defenders, and shrewd political guile, but the third time they gained access to the city through the Salarian Gate…which opened into the Horti Sallustiani.  Imagine the barbarians among the mausoleums, sarcophagi, and funereal urns outside the city, and then, by treachery or by Germanic ingenuity somehow, after 800 years they were within Rome itself among the pleasure pavilions and flowers and ornamental trees of the Gardens of Sallust.

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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

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Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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Happy April Fish Day!  The French manifestation of April Fool’s is much nicer than the rather horrid Anglo-Saxon version.  There is still room for farcical fun, as friends try to affix colorful paper fish to each other’s backs (although, admittedly, wearing a pretty fish is no substitute for being badly frightened or lightly injured in an American prank).

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Anyway, I was thinking about these fish, and it gave me an idea for camouflaged sculptures that blend in with the surroundings.  One of the secret strengths of the flatfish (which have become an artistic fixation of mine lately) is that they are capable of changing color to blend in with their habitat.  Unfortunately, this is usually a muddy seabed, which never really allows turbot, sole, plaice, and such like flatfish to explore their frivolous fashion side. With this in mind I set about building a flounder mold to make some “crouching turbot…hidden flounder” sculptures.  Unfortunately I only managed to craft a handful of prototypes, and I was unable to position them to maximum photographic advantage in the concrete jungles of early Anthropocene Brooklyn (yet). However we can get to that later.  Check out these streetfish I made for April Fish Day!

 

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I couldn’t find anything made of shiny steel to put that last one on top of, but fortunately my friend and erstwhile roommate Jennifer was wearing some fashionable silver footwear to help the poor fish feel at home!

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This is just the beginning of this project and we’ll see some more exotic streetflounder in the near future (as soon as I find some more disposable containers for mixing plaster) but in the meantime, happy April Fish Day!  Let us revel in the beauty of spring! Additionally, this is the ninth anniversary of the founding of Ferrebeekeeper, an event steeped in mysterious lore. Celebrate the happy occasion by dropping me a line or telling me what you would like to see more of!  I, personally would like more comments, and, to that end, I promise I will be better about responding quickly and cogently.  Thanks again for everything.  My readers are the best!

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