I’ve long admired the work of artist Michael Bukowski and his unique take on the creatures that dwell in the annals of Weird Fiction. In addition to illustrating the creatures of the Lovecraftian Mythos, he’s also tackled the work of more contemporary writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and Ursula LeGuin.
He’s gone ahead and rendered a portrait of the Grey Boy in The Nectar of Nightmares!
A couple of weekends ago, I went to a talk given by the curator of an art museum. The curator used the example of an exhibit he was currently working on: a retrospective of the artist Alma Thomas.
Her work sings to me. Mosaic geometries that vibrate with hue and saturation. Spheres that radiate color, trapping the eye. Blue that falls apart like leaves, or rain or snow. Colors that work together, in spite of their instinct to clash. Brightness falling from the air. Spectral chaos contained in matte precision.
A member of the Washington Color School movement, Thomas was the first African American female artist to have a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum. The curator talked about how Thomas vacillated between being an African American artist and being an American artist, and how it was a constant struggle throughout her career. Sometimes, she was just an artist whose work was in conversation with other artists like Morris Louis and movements like Lyrical Abstraction. Other times, she took upon herself the mantle of pioneer, and accepted that she was a black woman operating in a structure that was stacked against her. Much of her identity was filtered through the lens of the Talented Tenth/ Uplift the Race aesthetic but that shifted over time as all things do.
All of this to say: sometimes, I’m a Black and Queer writer. My identity fuels my creativity. Other times, I am just an author who channels the visions my muse sends to me. Sometimes I have to strategically play the Game, other times, I am an Aesthete hermetically sealed in my airless mansion of art. There are times when I want people to read my work and be struck by the numinous quality that’s at the heart of all great work. Yes, my writing centers marginalized people. It is also ‘in conversation’ with other writing, from James Baldwin to Tanith Lee to bell hooks. When you are an artist of color, people often don’t recognize your works complexity. It’s an eternal struggle.
Legendary is a gorgeous photography book that chronicles the vibrant underground Ballroom Scene. Gaskin captures black and Latino gay men in their finery. Their outfits exist somewhere beyond couture. They transform themselves into ephemeral creatures of their own imaginations. The balls themselves, held in NYC, DC and other urban areas, are alternate dimensions, where you can let your freak flags fly. Gender warriors become proud peacocks in bold colors. The sheer beauty of these photographic compositions are astounding. Gaskin has created a visual feast that reveals this magical subculture.
I have a complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. And I don’t mean his flowers and fruit pictures. The way he fetishizes the black male body disturbs me; he makes me a partner in their objectification. I mean, these men and the light with which they are cast and their poses are undeniably beautiful. But they are just icons, and in a way, no different than the glossy eggplant photo or the calla lilies he captured.
These men are captured in black and white, on film, in the camera’s eye, and in my own. Is the baggage that I bring to these images my own or is it deeper than that?
Back in the early 90s, my then-partner created a video, a mediation on interracial relationships. The video was eventually picked up by the Festival Circuit. The video had showings internationally, including places like Italy and South Africa. I narrated portions of the video, which included a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, called The Snow Fairy, which could be interpreted as an ode to an interracial encounter. I went to a showing of the video in New York. One of the scenes in the video has me kneading the flesh of my then-partner. When the video finished, the floor opened up for a discussion about what we had seen. One man thought the video was racist. He highlighted the scene where my hands were on the the white flesh of my partner. He thought that scene showed that I was like a slave, pleasing his master.
This incident, for me, encompasses all of the issues I have with this section of Mapplethorpe’s work. The black men on display in his work are ciphers, upon which a viewer’s thoughts/agendas may be placed. Like the men in those photographs, I was a willing participant in an act that could be seen as racist, regardless of intent. The fact that I don’t think so is immaterial; in the video, I was just a symbol, an image. I’ve learned that many of the men that Mapplethorpe photographed were friends, and indeed, lovers with the photographer. Does that change the meaning or doesn’t it?
I identify with the photographer and the photographed.
I discovered William Blake’s work when I was a child. At the time, Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet was very popular and my family had a copy of it. The words were poetic and philosophical; but it was Gibran’s black and white drawings that held my interest. The mystical opaque paintings that accompanied the inspirational, allegorical prose poetry held my imagination. I could stare at those pictures forever. At 10, I wrote and illustrated my own work of Inspirational Fiction, entitled Bird of Stars. It had a one print run, and it no longer survives.
Gibran was described as a “modern day William Blake.” I found that was only superficially true. Gibran is a talented visionary, but Blake is a genius. His symbolic paintings are portals to other worlds, and reflect a very personal version of Christian mythology. His work is febrile and opiated, full of colors that have no precise name. The luminous beings in his paintings seem more summoned than painted. Blake created a private mythology that overlapped and incorporated Christian myth. It’s said that he had visions, a kind of Gnostic awakening. Even his demonic images are imbued with this grace.
By day, Henry Darger was janitor. He’d had a hard life; he had been orphaned and raised in a Boy’s Home in Chicago. He spent his days doing menial work at a Catholic Hospital, and went home to a dank basement where he lived as a hermit. But in that basement, there existed another world, one that he created. Nights he created an imaginary world full of winged beings, child slaves and heroic princesses. He was writing a novel, an epic set on a magical world where good and evil clashed. This world was meticulously illustrated, with eerie murals created from paint and collage. He is considered to be the ultimate example of an Outsider Artist.
The intensity of his vision is admirable. It was a burning passion, almost a madness. Darger was compelled to write and illustrate thousands of pages of this story, with no intention to publish. His work was only discovered after his death. There are times when, as writer, you feel that you’re just writing for yourself. For Darger, that was enough.