You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘symbolic’ tag.

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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

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It’s time we had a painful talk about the pornographic ‘novel’, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a best-seller published in 2011/2012.   [Disclaimer: I haven’t read this work nor watched the awful-looking movies.  I am guilty of a cardinal sin of scholarship: writing about something I haven’t read.  I don’t care: I never plan to read this thing.  My point here is not really about bad popular fiction] This uh…romance (?) book is about a shy & awkward virginal nobody who is sent to interview a manipulative billionaire creep.  Unsurprisingly, the manipulative billionaire seduces her with his obscene wealth and power and locks her in a contract where he is allowed to do anything he wants to her. Romance ensues!

It is tempting to look at this moronic plot, shrug, and say “Who likes this stuff?” Yet actually, we should not be surprised that this book was a top-of-the charts best-seller for years–a second look reveals it to be an extremely germane allegory of our actual lives.  America’s fantasies of being enslaved and abused by creepy billionaires are not harmless fantasies: they are the reality of our times!  It is the top item of the news every day.  The extent to which this slimy bondage narrative about billionaires abusing underlings has become the main story of our entire culture should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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The characters in “Fifty Shades of Gray” at least have a safe word.  We do not.  The new oligarchs can do anything they wish and face almost no repercussions (as was illustrated by the lack of accountability for the events which caused the Great Recession…and illustrated again, afterwards, when the people who caused the crisis became much richer).   This is because of a devilish nexus of market consolidation and oligopoly.  Since the super rich now own almost everything (including the media outlets and tech platforms we use to communicate), it also means that we live in a world awash in glowing panegyrics to these monopolists,raiders, and conmen. We also live in a country where both political parties are captured and compromised by monopolistic moneyed interests (all of this is elucidated in this rather superb Atlantic essay about how the political crisis of the 21st century is taking us much further down “the road to serfdom” than we would have imagined).

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Obviously in addressing these problems, I am talking about President Trump, but I don’t think Trump is actually a billionaire.  He lost his inherited fortune in the 80s and has been adding billions and billions of dollars of increasingly shady debt ever since.  However he certainly identifies as a billionaire (snicker) and he serves the crooked schemes of oligarchs…and the even darker schemes of his unknown true creditors. It is these finance, tech, and real-estate tycoons who are the real problem.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even fathom how they are removing real competition from the system or real political power from the hands of voters.  Here is a rather fascinating article about he true darkness of money in politics.

If you followed that link you will see it was mostly about money in conservative political circles, but the Democratic Party has a similar problem.  Every day some new Christian Gray flies out of the sky and offers to tie us up and save us from ourselves.  “Come on, you know you’ll like it” says Bloomberg as he pushes us onto a stained sofa and fumbles for the straps.

In case you are laboring under the ingenuous middle-class fantasy that this applies to all of those slutty self-hating poor people but not to a worthy, hot, hard-working burgher like yourself then wake up! We are all poor compared to people whose net worth is measured in nine and ten and figures.  The prevalence of SLAPP suits, K Street consultants, and secret nondisclosure agreements  with Epsteins,  Weinsteins, and Michael Jacksons reflects a world where the rich are too big to fail and the rest of us are two small to ever succeed.

It all needs to change. Instead of wasting your life in some monopolistic company’s taupe open office while counting other people’s money or building marketing concepts for stuff you can’t afford, you could have your own business.  Instead of health care that can only be obtained through working for a gigantic company, we could have a real safety net.  We need rules and regulations, but not the sort of rules that can only be followed by organizations with giant compliance departments and that only benefit huge corporate cartels.  Barriers to market entry that are too high for anyone who isn’t an international oligarch. Globalism is the story of how vast new international cartels and oligopolies have broken politics and culture in such a way that we can’t even respond (except with essays that nobody reads).

This is unacceptable.  Let us talk about how to rewrite this bad codependant SM tale.

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The French were the original masters of the erotic tale.  From Clovis I until Louis XVI, they wrote an unrivaled “Shades of Gray” style series of bondage novels which started hard and grew even more perverted and extreme as the centuries rolled by.  But the French people got tired of this series and flipped the script and rewrote the whole premise in the boldest way possible.  Perhaps we need to think of doing some radical editing and rewriting before the story of our own lives becomes even more like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Story of O”.

We can rewrite this tale with thoughtful political reform and  redistribution (we use to call such thing taxes and expect everyone to pay their fair share so we could have a society and make real scientific discoveries).  Billionaires need to sign up for this and agree to just being extremely wealthy instead of needing to have ALL the wealth. Otherwise someday they will find not President Trump or Bloomberg, but President Robespierre.  They should think that the forces we are now unleashing could result in billionaires getting screwed too. Not the Christian Gray way.  The French 1789 way.

 

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My art theme this year has been flatfish, and I have made quite a lot of them.  I think the results are very strong, but the slightly ludicrous subject leaves me at a disadvantage when I am trying to explain my work via the unforgiving medium of tweet or elevator pitch.  Nothing vexes a group of high-fashion socialites quite like blurting out “I mostly paint elaborate symbolic flatfish!” The most obvious quick explanation is to make a joke about how I have been floundering (which is certainly true in many ways), however there is a lot more to this favorite subject than that.

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The Pleuronectiformes (flatfish) are indeed flat–like paintings and drawings–which makes them an ideal medium for compositions.  They are a favorite prey for humankind–which perfectly suits my theme of hooks, lures, traps, and beguilements (which seem to be taking over ever more in human society as we proliferate and jockey for resources).  Flatfish also provides an immediate environmental theme–for they are quickly being fished into extinction (like almost all of the ray-finned fishes).  Yet flatfish are no innocents.  Like many large fish, these animals are all highly sophisticated predators. In order to succeed they make use of their own subterfuges.  Flatfish blend in. They can literally change colors like chameleons.  I sort of think of them as the middle class of the biome, squeezed between the little shrimpkins, copepods, and minnows they gobble up and the rapacious pelicans, dolphins, humans and suchlike superpredators who in turn hunt them with beaked hooks, sonar, and cruel nets.

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Above all, flatfish are asymmetric–which means I can draw both of their expressive eyes without being forced to contemplate a lot of elaborate piscine bending.  Their asymmetry also makes them stand out among all of the vertebrates. The universe has twisted them at adolescence–but it has given them an indefinable topological advantage as well.  Also look at their little irregular paisley eyes.

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Of course Meg Miller thinks I have gone crazy, and perhaps she is right.  But after a while staring in the windows, “outsider artist” is the only card left to play.  You never know, I could still leap out of the substrate and start gobbling shrimp any day now.  Kindly check out my flatfish on Instagram and write me about your thoughts on the subject.  Flounders are sad, but they are comical too (which is unusual in visual art) so everyone has an opinion.  Please let me know how these flatfish make you feel!

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mantis1As mentioned in previous posts, my parents have a majestic flock of pilgrim geese (and one peculiar Canada goose).  They have more giant beautiful bright white eggs than they know what to do with…so, when I was home for Easter, I worked in the ancient Ukrainian medium of pysanky.  This involves writing on eggs with a heated wax stylus and then dipping the eggs in progressive layers of batik dyes.  The end results have a beautiful color unlike any other art works, and the eggs are lovely in their own right—both as a curvilinear art medium and as symbols of existence (see yesterday’s post).

Most of my works here feature donuts (which is my personal symbol for the universe) and or flounder.  There are some strange alien-looking mollusks too and some stars.  However I like the radish and the mantis shrimp best.  Those arthropods are amazing creatures (although they are hard to draw with hot wax).  I need to blog about them in the near future.  In the meantime, hopefully the great serpent of the pagan Ukrainian underworld will be satisfied with this batch of eggs.

 

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The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)

I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.

In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).

Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?

I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.

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Bees in pastoral hives from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

Here are two bee-themed illuminations from a very beautiful hand-drawn book from early 16th century France.  The book’s theme is “Flowers of Virtue.”  In the illustration above, the hard-working bees are busily making honey–a model of industrious virtue.  In the illustration below, gluttonous thieving bears are spoiling all of the bees hard work by smashing the hives and gulping down the honey.  My grandfather kept a hive of bees in West Virginia, and this same thing happened to his bees (although the bears apparently ate the bees and a fair amount of the hive in addition to the sweet honey).

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Gluttonous Bears Raid the Hives, from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

 

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree from the Mediterranean which grows up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall (although it is usually smaller).  Myrtle has little white star-like flowers which turn into blue-gray glaucous berries.  The small leaves produce an essential oil with a distinctive odor.  Myrtles are elegant small plants which can be clipped into handsome topiaries for the mild weather garden.  Some of you Californians may recognize it, if you aren’t too busy surfing, or auditioning for movies, or joining cults.   Herbalists attribute various medicinal properties to the plant, but medical science has never confirmed any utility of any part of the plant as a drug.

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Myrtle is primarily worthy of mention because the Greeks and Romans loved it and regarded it as a sacred plant of love and immortality.  The plant was the signature flower of Aphriodite/Venus (though it was also apparently sacred to Demeter, albeit to a lesser degree).  Since it is symbolic of Venus, myrtle punches far above its weight in the canon of Western art.  Visitors to art museums are probably perplexed to notice the non-descript little topiary in the background of bodacious paintings of the gorgeous nude goddess (assuming they notice at all).  Venus’ other attributes are well known: swans, roses, nudity, little men with bows and arrows, nudity, shells, Cyprus, nudity, and sparrows, however the poor myrtle seems somewhat overshadowed by the charisma and charms of the love goddess.

Venus D'Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Venus D’Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Honey Bundt Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, oil on panel)

Honey Bundt Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, oil on panel)

I’m sorry we have been stuck on the lugubrious story of Oisín and Niamh for so long.  To make up for it, here is one of my own paintings…and it isn’t just any painting: in fact it is a special painting which symbolically represents this blog.  If you let your eye wonder through the composition, you will recognize many of the familiar themes and topics of ferrebeekeeper.  Space is represented by a golden planet with Saturn-like rings, and by a rocket.  Additionally, the entire composition takes place in outer space (as does everything–if you think about it).  Against a backdrop of nebulae and swirling galaxies a domestic turkey takes wing and a school of belemnites (long vanished mollusks which are related to squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish) use their own jet propulsion to swim among the stars. A blue Chinese ewer made of porcelain floats in the bottom left corner beneath a swarm of eusocial bees which are issuing from a gothic beehive on the back of a great green river catfish.  The goddess Hecate, the strangest and most evocative chthonic deity of ancient Rome brandished torches and a venomous serpent.  Growing in the nothingness beside the witch goddess, a poisonous monkshood represents gardens (and poisons). In the center of the composition is a fearsome Andrewsarchus—the largest mammalian land predator.  The mighty (albeit extinct) beast bears an ornate cobalt cake plate with a great glistening honey bundt cake.  The wheat in the cake represents agriculture (as do the turkey and the bees), but beyond that, the cake’s toroid shape hints at larger cosmological mysteries. Taking a step back, the painting is composed of colors and it is itself visual art, the symbolic representation of humankind’s enduring search for meaning.

I have left politics out of the composition as a matter of good taste.  Also trees did not make it into the painting because who’s ever heard of a tree in space?

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