Sunday, May 03, 2009
Although I was raised by agnostic parents, I've always been fascinated by religious rites. I used to exercise – or do I mean 'exorcise'? – this by making altars. They were an early, uninformed experiment in syncretism, melding a variety of disparate belief systems and their symbols: Catholic rosary beads and scapulars wound between stone Buddhas and Santeria-like snake skeletons; a plastic Virgin Mary and a scalloped finger bowl for holy water watched over wooden, hand-painted skeletons, souvenirs of Mexico's Day of the Dead, in small, hand-carved coffins; there were offerings of dried flowers, a bottle of Brazilian cachaça, partly melted red and black candles and plastic Mardi Gras beads from New Orleans, some moulded to look like skulls.The fascination with crude altar-making inspired a curiosity about the strange amalgam of Latin American Catholicism and West African Yoruban beliefs found in Vodou, Santeria, Obeah and Candomblé. My first watercolours, exhibited in 2006 as Venus In Hell, were torrid depictions of Vodoun tales and rituals, incorporating various signs (or vévés) and spirit figures (loas), such Erzulie Freda and Baron Samedi. The works also explored symbols derived from my own spiritual nightmares : snake skeletons, bleeding crows, subdued or tethered young women at the mercy of a corpulent, visibly aroused houngan. I created an altar for the exhibition with offerings and small fetish dolls hand-made from cloth and clay strewn across the floor around it.I've flirted only superficially with spirituality in my enamel works and even then, only in a couple of my early works and more for humour than anything else. However, despite having been immersed in the ironic superficiality of the Dangerous Career Babes for a year or so, the complex, animistic multi-theism of Caribbean religions and the more baroque, set-piece rituals of Roman Catholicism have continued to percolate in my imagination, prompting fleeting obsessions first with Mary Magdalene then with various virgin or martyred female saints. More and more, I found myself revisiting the religious folk portraits of female saints – typically chaste, showing only veiled head and shoulders – that had inspired Frida Kahlo. Through rough sketches based on a series of Polaroid self-portraits I'd shot in 2000, I began re-imagining these images with me in the tense but faintly erotic grip of an ecstatic holiness. I have now painted two of a planned series of six enamels, titled Precious Blood, each on hand-crafted 1.0m x 1.5m timber boards, each with the same figure – somewhat flat in perspective, in the manner of the 15th century painter, Piero Della Francesca – on the same pale pink background, black rosary beads entwined in her fingers, a suggestive smear of blood (like cum) at the edge of her pale lips. The repetition reinforces a cinematic impression while also reflecting the convention of early religious painting in which the portrayal of a particular saint were often very similar – if not exactly the same – even from artist to artist.