Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coming To The Fat Man

The fat man first appeared in my work in early 2006, just as I was finishing the dozen or so watercolours on paper I exhibited under the title Venus In Hell at MARS Gallery in Melbourne, the same year.
He was originally conceived as a houngan, a Voodoo priest, but in works done after the exhibition, he evolved into an impish, priapic Buddha. I loved drawing him in all his forms. He was completely different to the lithe, leggy female figures that populate much of my work. Broad but squat, his large, round belly hung over his waist like an over-stuffed life-jacket. His head was also round and completely bald, his legs short, with thighs that were thick and soft. Between them nestled a long, circumcised cock. His age was indeterminate.
The fat man was probably inspired by a passage I came across, a couple of years before, in a short story by a writer whose name I can't now remember. I copied a paragraph onto a page of one of my sketchbooks.
It read:
I studied myself naked in a full-length mirror behind the bedroom door – a brief physical audit of nearly forty-nine years of self-indulgence and neglect. I was morbidly obese. My skin was still elastic, even where it hung in a fold over my hips, but pale and discoloured with age. My cock was receding into a fattening pubis; I could no longer see it over my stomach, except when it was erect. My ankles and knees were swollen and there were striations of cellulite beneath my buttocks. My hands were misshapen with arthritis. My hair was cropped close to my skull but it had become so grey and patchy that it resembled the mottled flesh of a corpse. The rest of my body was overtaken with hair and benign growths. My teeth were yellowing and there was an after-taste of decay beneath my tongue. My eyes were bloodshot, a combination of tiredness and high blood-pressure, and my sight was failing. I had to wear glasses to read anything smaller than 14-point.
The fat man wasn't a central figure in my pictures. Mostly, he was consigned to the margins, from where he was either a curious observer or a kind of ethically ambivalent conscience with an apparent but undefined connection to whatever was happening. In My Houngan, he's a passive, jade-green gnome whose cock is entwined with a rosary bead. In The Descent he's fucking an ecstatic African woman as he stares from darkened sockets straight at the viewer. In Kelly, The First Time, No. 1, he is an indistinct smear in the upper left-hand corner of the composition, a shadowy observer or maybe just a ghost.
The fat man has re-appeared in a recent batch of small, watercolour sketches. He's older, frailer, more obese and running to seed. No longer a spiritual or demonic figure, he has fallen to earth and into the arms of louche, media-enabled, modern young women for whom he becomes a passive play-thing. I feel for him, so in all my sketches he's mostly prone, a dying whale stranded on a barren beach.
When I was younger, I loved the pale, soft, ample women of Titian and Rubens and their blotchy, corpulent, 20th century sisters depicted by Lucien Freud. But beyond Freud, whose nudes ruthlessly examine the morbidly obese or dessicated flesh of both sexes (rendering even Kate Moss as a pretty but still ropey-looking middle-aged woman), there are few other painters for whom fat aging males are a compelling subject matter.
I'm still not entirely sure why they are for me. I suspect it's because I can better express elements of my own truths within the motley but expansive topography of the fat man's body than that of someone younger, buffer but less lived-in. It's round, swollen contours have, too, something in common with a woman's body – curved in places yet firm, not as soft as a woman's – and I feel the same comfortable flow from eye to my brush or pencil as I draw them.
Oddly, maybe, I also find them just as sensual.


Phoinix said...

The Buddha connotations are very interesting as are the similarity to female form... An overweight male even produces female hormone at higher levels/inhibits male hormones. So that similarity extends below skin and fat to chemistry as well.

You raise some interesting concepts (I hadn't even thought about Buddhist symbolism) and has me thinking in some different directions.

Rob Reeves said...

I like the Houngan to Buddha metamorphosis. There is a lot of sexuality that goes with the Voodoo priest idea and Buddha figures are both comforting and amusing. There's a land in between where this guy lives. His involvement with the girls in your piece doesn't seem out of place. I like the fact that he's come to the forefront of the composition even if he is a prop for the women to use.

jennie Rosenbaum said...

he reminds me of a character in a trilogy I very much enjoyed by Robin Hobb. a man who gets invaded by magic and it swells him to enormous sizes. he is scorned by his own community but i seen as a god like figure of power and attractiveness in another. Hobb, like you has turned something that we would ordinarily find almost repulsive and added a tender sensuality that is really very interesting.

Sheryl L. said...

Went to MARS Gallery in Melbourne website.
Exhibitions for 2006 you refer to.
You are not listed.
Did they forget you?

tex1sam said...

Your description made me think of this piece I saw in the Hirshhorn.