Flaying of Marsyas, Homage to Titian"Personal Structures, Identities"
May11-November24, 2019, Palazzo Mora, Venice Italy
Acrylic and crackle medium on stretched canvas with ropes and metal hooks, 80" x 82" x 300"(height of ceiling). Dimensions variable
Titian: "The Flaying of Marsyas, c. 1570-1576 , oil on canvas. 83 x 81 in (212 x 207 cm). Archdiocesan Museum Kromeriz, Archbishopric Castle, Kromeriz
The first time I saw Titian's “The Flaying of Marsyas” (also known as “Apollo and Marsyas”) was at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, in the fall of 1990. The painting was included in a traveling exhibition titled: “Titian:Prince of Painters”. The artwork captivated me immediately. Upon initial encounter, I wasn’t sure if I should keep staring or turn away to divert my eyes. As a painter, I absorbed the intricate handling of the medium, the strong contrast of lights and darks and the subtle, yet exquisite use of color. However, the brutal imagery proved to be much more perplexing to grasp. After a few minutes of looking, I stood with an overwhelming sense of self-consciousness as if something about the works sacrificial story made it confusing to understand my place as a viewer. I had never encountered an artwork that both attracted and repelled to this level and with such potency. It was this oscillation that provided an aesthetic experience for me that has yet to be equaled in all my years of looking at paintings. As a young, abstract painter it indicated to me the power and persuasiveness of what figurative work, at its best, can do.
The myth of Apollo and Marsyas is much more then just the conflict between beauty and savagery. The power struggles portrayed through the story, particularly divine intervention, touch on universal themes that question what it means to be human. The satyr Marsyas finds an aulos discarded by Athena who curses it because she doesn’t like the way it distorts her face when she plays it. Marsyas perfects his skill at the instrument to such an extent that he is willing to challenge Apollo to a musical contest. Apollo's chosen instrument is the lyre, so we have a duel of skill between a satyr and a god. The agreement is that the victor can instill a punishment of their choosing to the defeated. Apollo wins the contest and his decree is for Marsyas to be flayed alive. Through this myth, there is a triumph of divinity over earthly life, a challenge from our animal instincts towards a higher realm and a scathing retribution for humankind's hubristic tendencies.
My rendition of “The Flaying of Marsyas" transforms from a figurative representation of a narrative to a material usage as narrative. The surface of the painting is treated as skin by using a coating of crackle medium which forces the top layer of paint to split, forming fissures and revealing the color underneath. This vein-like appearance mimics a flayed surface. This work is as much about addressing subject matter through abstraction as it is about paying homage to a great painting. Because of this myth, and Titian's brilliant articulation of it, I was driven by a compulsion to do more then just “allude” to a theme, but attempt to create a contemporary version of a ritual in the artistic realm and link a particular message through time.
The formal simplicity of this piece may reference certain expressions of Minimalist practices. The seriality of works from that genre often emphasize art-making through paradigms of constraint. My Variations do reveal a process of finding possibilities through restriction, yet for me, this need for repetition is a form of catharsis so the motivation is far different from a calculated methodology. This cathartic aspect has a deep resonance because it allows me to perpetuate an amazing story and tribute a work of art that still reverberates through the centuries. If I have any rights or role to play in this particular influence, then the only way to not be skinned myself, is to acknowledge this formidable guide.