an expressive modality common to humanity: Throughout human
history, human societies have shown the inability to live
without myth, which is to say without an explanation, through
story, of human origins, of the origins of each thing. Myth
gives meaning. Not only has mythology helped ward off chaos,
but it is, as Nietzsche observed, "an image of the
world shortened." We must take myth metaphorically.
And yet it is archetypal. Myth has a basic function that
is psychological. Of course the gods are dead but they live
in our psyche -- they are metaphors for our psyche.
In our ever shifting society, our references and our ways
of communicating are in flux. Certain thinkers, following
Roland Barthes, consider myths too archaic, too far from
our reality. They suggest myths have lost their relevance
to explain our contemporary world. For them, myths are just
stories disconnected from our emotional and psychic life.
So why would contemporary artists choose to represent scenes
from Western mythology? What do we make of work that re-appropriates
scenes from Greek and Roman mythology? Many artists, following
psychoanalysts Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman, suggest
that what the gods of mythology represent is alive, and
that we are not so different from the ancient people.
Mythic figures convey great energy -- often a destructive
one. They also symbolize, according to Jung, a superhuman
libido with multiple faces. This libido is not exclusively
sexual -- it is also life instinct, a will of being. The
artists who represent Greek mythology in paintings, photographs,
videos or installation illuminate hidden worlds and instincts.
Their artworks display interpretations of a specific myth
and reveal their projections on it. The works return to
us stories explaining certain truths, stories that encourage
us to understand a personal world, and more extensively,
our own world. Venus, Icarus, Narcissus and Pan, figures
closely associated with psychological states, are poignantly,
most frequently represented.
The story of Narcissus, the beautiful young man who spurned
love and died as a result, inspired Michael Borosky in Queer
Narcissus, Tracy Silverberg in Narcissus, Frank Moore's
Black Narcissus and John Lesnick, Narcissus. The Goddess
Nemesis made Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection:
he stayed transfixed watching his own reflection in a pool
of water and let himself die. In each work, the mirrored
reflection is eloquently depicted. In Silverberg's representation,
the nudity of the model conveys fragility. A similar ethereality
exists with Moore's Narcissus, who seems to be a hybrid
of Narcissus and Icarus, a tiny human with wings and a "kafkaian"
insect reflection. In Lesnick's installation, the materiality
of the bricks reinforces the sense that Narcissus reinforces
the immobility of Narcissus, while the fluidity of the water
disappears totally. In pain, and ultimately in death, Narcissus
discovers that he is alienated by his own image. There is
no otherness with Narcissus -- his self does not reach totality
because he never experiences alterity. At the end, he proves
mortal, because he is deprived of the one.
Pan, God of Shepherds and Flocks, is often depicted as
a satyr with a reed pipe, two horns and a hairy body. Richard
Treitner's photograph, Pan's Pipe literally brings to life
this God of fertility, of unbridled male sexuality, and
of sexual desire. Whereas Elliott Linwood's Citizen Pan
works in a more symbolic or conceptual vein and, recalling
Beuys, Pan remains in shadow. Similarly, Chet Holcomb's
Centaur suggests human impulsiveness and, though we only
see a face and shoulder, a certain fragility.
Tim Jocelyn in his Resigning Icarus and Silverberg in Icarus
present the son of Daedalus and a slave (that Minos kept
with his father imprisoned in the labyrinth to punish Daedalus
for helping the hero Theseus kill the Minotaur and who,
thanks to Daedalus's intelligence, escaped their prison).
Deadalus builds, with wax, string and feathers, wings for
his son and himself to fly. Freed and back home, Icarus
became so exhilarated by flight that he ignored his father's
warning and flew too high. The sun melted the wax of his
wings and he fell into the sea and drowned. Silverberg,
in focusing on the shoulder and the wing, reveals Icarus'
fragility and reinforces his human condition. Recklessness
and excessiveness are less dangerous when controlled.
Venus's birth famously represented by Sandro Botticelli
at the end of the 15th century with a naked Venus coming
out of a large shell in the middle of the composition mildly
inspired Frank Moore's Birth of Venus. In his version, a
male naked body with long dyed blond hair and makeup comes
out of what looks like a gigantic umbilical cord. Similar
humor exists in Mike Parker's Birth of Venus. Parker places
his face on a giant skate fish surfing a wave and places
his parents' faces on each side of the composition while
"Surfrealist" hovers above their heads. We cannot
help noticing the very classical representation of parents
transported directly from the 1950s. For his part, Michael
Bedlin in Big City Life transcends the classical representation.
Venus is presented as a headless goddess centered in the
composition and rising above and among a collage of other
mythical references like the gilded calf, eyes, city and
country landscapes. The goddess seems to embrace the city,
and the world. John Morrisson subtly entitles Venus -- a
photograph representing a lotus flower rising from the water.
The lotus flower moves from the earth to the air, through
water, and like Venus, symbolizes purity, fertility and
beauty. Daniel Vasquez depicts, in Venus and Cupid, the
god of erotic love and beauty in a scene where the two figures
are shown together. Here, love and beauty collide with eros.
Ascetics say that beauty is a devilish trap: Beauty by itself
makes tolerable the need of chaos, violence and indignity
that is the root of love.
Those myths depict and discuss love, death and desire.
They are alive in our contemporary psyche and their influence
still reigns in our modern situations. As Hilmann, the notorious
psychoanalyst, wrote, "mythology is a psychology of
antiquity. Psychology is a mythology of modernity"
or "psychology shows myths in modern dress and myths
show our deep psychology in ancient dress." Hilmann
suggests that the psyche spontaneously projects myths --
or produces modern dreams, fantasies and experiences similar
to ancient myths. We find echos in today's life. Myth gives
resonance to the little melody of life. They are more than
a colorful way of describing psychological states. They
actually describe what it is like to be in those states.
Finally, I read these works as self-portraits, emotional
and filled with expressionistic symbols. The artists' self-representations
of myth unveil its correlation with human experiences and
osmosis with psychic experiences. The artists transcend
death, love and melancholy in their creations and remind
us that ineluctably we proceed from archetypes. We are those
stories -- the artists remind us. We can recognize ourselves,
both our psychic and human experiences, in those tales where
the past, present and future converge, and where the subjective
and the objective merge.
b i o g r a p h y
Anne Couillaud is an independent curator, and currently
Associate Director of Virgil de Voldere Gallery. Her most
recent curatorial project, "Solitude(s)", was
an exhibition at LMAK Gallery, NY.