Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lopping Heads Off.

The other day I visited my mother at her 'assisted living' residence, a much cheerier syllogism than 'nursing home.' It's actually quite nice, at least until the bill arrives at the end of the month. For a cool $6,000 a month, management provides a two room apartment with small fridge, three meals a day, resident nurse, and a long list of daily activities: karaoke hour, arts and crafts, belly dancing lessons and scintillating group trips to the local Rite Aid pharmacy. Pleasant Jamaican aides scuttle about, pushing wheelchairs, changing beds and vacuuming the resident cat.

I never miss the jar of hard candies by the guest register. My wife always chides me about grabbing too many, but when I consider the monthly rent, I'm tempted to back up the station wagon to load up on Jolly Ranchers. My mom doesn't like the place, saying it's depressing, full of old ladies who sleep all day in their wheelchairs. This declaration is always uttered shortly after my arrival, once I've roused her from a catnap. She wasn't sleeping of course, just resting her eyes...

boy slays vatican
Oh, to be young and lop people's heads off...
She was actually awake the last time I visited, sitting on a sofa in one of the common rooms. A large flatscreen tv was blaring the Travel Channel at an earsplitting volume. Since a conversation was impossible, we watched the program, which featured the alpine wonderlands of Switzerland and Austria. The narrator was walking down quaint, impeccably clean streets, dotted with cheery cafes; well-dressed  natives sipped very good local beer and very terrible local wine. We drifted down the Danube River and into the national museums. Our illustrious guide seemed to quicken his pace through gold-leafed hallways depicting boring portraits of the Hapsburg dynasty, settling on hometown artists like Gustav Klimt and Paul Klee. Somehow Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath made an appearance on screen, a somewhat jarring image after frescoes of celestial cherubs. When the narrator pointed out that the head of Goliath was actually a self portrait of the artist, I laughed so hard it drew the indignant stares of two elderly women seated in the room. It seemed like a giant practical joke (literally) on the Church; I later read the masterpiece was an act of contrition after Caravaggio murdered one of the pope's soldiers.

Commissions by wealthy archbishops or nobility were keys for an artist to avoid starving to death. I'm sure Velazquez would've rather been painting a naked young woman lying on a divan in his studio, suggestively holding a plate of grapes. If only I could paint, or have fancy furniture...

The Entombment: Christ, you're heavy.
I love Caravaggio; one of his paintings provided my first real art experience. When I was about 20, my parents scored tickets to the Vatican exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Telling me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I begrudgingly agreed to go. We made some obligatory rounds before hitting the special exhibit, examining mummy's tombs and observing armless, footless or otherwise dismembered statues from a million years ago. When we finally reached the cordoned-off exhibit, there was a line; only a few people could enter at a time. Once inside, I wandered through the rooms, unimpressed with penis sizes on sculptures by Rodin and Michelangelo.

For someone who said he didn't want any other idols before Him, God was a real attention hog. There was even more Jesus stuff. I was wearily gazing at another Saint Somebody or Other the Martyr Tortured Unmercilessly, when I noticed a large group of people in the next room. They seemed to be transfixed, agape and staring at something hidden from my view. I walked in and had the same reaction; my jaw nearly dropped in amazement. Hanging in the center of the wall was a larger than life Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ. The figures in the painting seemed alive (except for Jesus), capable of stepping right off the canvas. I'd never seen anything like it, and have judged all great artwork by the same standard, regardless of the genre; a quality to the work that transcends the very medium used to convey it, an insistence on making its presence or point known to the viewer.

My own first attempt at the finer arts occurred in the third grade. Mrs. Muccigrosso (which means 'very fat' in Italian--those people shoot straight from the hip with their patronymics) walked into our art class one day with several large brown bags. There were 8x10 white canvases, tubes of acrylic oil paints, along with brushes and little plastic scalpels. The materials must of cost a fortune--at least as much as my catholic school uniform, which I promptly destroyed that day with Cerulean Blue paint stains. When I got home my mom had a heart attack.

"Whatever happened to finger paints?" she demanded to know. She had enough problems keeping me clothed. My favorite schoolyard game was Ringolevio, a rough game of group tag, or rather tackle. Captured players were put in a makeshift jail, but could be freed by a charging teammate. It was a great game for Mack trucks like Franco Biondi, who was shaving by age nine and had hair on his back at 12. Steamrolling into our jail at full speed, he'd bowl over pipsqueaks like myself trying to tackle him, shredding my pants on the asphalt in the process. All our team could do was grab his plaid necktie in an attempt to clothesline or choke him to death; he wore a clip-on though, rendering that tactic ineffectual. His bull rushes guaranteed himself a ripped shirt as we clawed at him; he never seemed to care. I'm sure his mother feared him too much to say anything.

Our goal with Mrs. Muccigrosso was to recreate Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. We were handed a cheap lithograph print as a guide. I wasn't impressed by Starry Night; it didn't remotely resemble any night skies I'd seen in the Bronx. I preferred the collection of Norman Rockwell plates in my Aunt's living room in Queens: perfect, white Anglican children with rosy cheeks, wearing goofy old clothes that didn't quite fit, adoring cocker spaniels at their feet.

Swirly painting
The stars don't really look like that...
I read the brief biography printed on the back of the lithograph. It mentioned that the artist had cut off his own ear and mailed it to his girlfriend. I promptly raised my hand and asked why Mr. Van Gogh hadn't just sent her a box of chocolates or a Hallmark greeting card. Mrs. Muccigrosso sighed deeply as if in pain herself, declaring that Vincent suffered from a troubled soul. I figured maybe his ear was the reason the painting didn't turn out so good; his head must've been hurting like hell after that.

My own rendering was a complete disaster. Mrs. Very Fat made the mistake of emphasizing the cypress tree in the foreground, saying it contained thick layers of paint to provide visual context. I promptly globbed all my paint onto the left side of the canvas, later smearing it with my forearm when I bent over to wipe up the turpentine I'd spilled on the floor. Upon arriving home, my mom threw my shirt in the trash, and insisted on hanging the mess on our kitchen wall. Now that's love.

One of my many regrets is that I never took an art history class in college; I can't tell a Monet from a Manet. I can however, regale anyone with the basic principles of cost accounting. I love museums and art galleries though, eschewing any breaks for food and drink, compulsively reading all the plaques while my company patiently waits at the exit. I actually don't like Baroque and have seen all the major Impressionists, preferring work that's more abstract. Some people see a Jackson Pollock as nothing more than a bunch of paint drippings. I couldn't disagree more. Somehow the paintings have an internal logic and aesthetic that forms a logical whole my subconscious mind can make sense of. Someone standing next to me looked at the painting below and asked, "What does it mean?" Art doesn't have to 'mean' anything, any more than life does.

Autumnal Post Nasal Drip
Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm.  Does it have a meaning? Who cares?
Our world is an immense kaleidoscope of geometric shapes, bright and muted colors, redwood trees, plastic foam cups, fleeting orgasms, acid reflux indigestion, satori, sudoku, soy sauce, skyscrapers, hand-made sweaters, tsetse flies and brass trombones. Our conceived ideas and overt manifestations of society collectively resemble a giant Jackson Pollock painting.

I look at the painting, I feel the painting, I steal the hard candies on the way out. It's all good.


  1. Switzerland and Austria are not Nordic countries. Alpine might be the world you want.

    1. Have to admit I hesitated before adding that adjective. I stand corrected, and have made the correction--thanks!

  2. That last paragraph of yours is very evocative, although it gives me the image of one of those "find the hidden object" pictures rather than a Jackson Pollock.

    And I like to steal the lollies too :D

    1. Kelbo: Last time I was at the Museum of Modern Art, one piece consisted of tens of thousands of hard candies wrapped in silver foil, spread on the floor. It looked liked a large body of water, and there was a plaque inviting people to take the candy. When I left, it looked a puddle.


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