Cytherea

In June, 2012, I was in one of my familiar between-pictures-states-of-mind - what I label “Zwischenbilderkeit”, a word I coined out of the tiny bit of German I remember from graduate school. Stalled, my imagination cloudy with indecision, none of my ideas giving me that faint beckoning spark of energy I take as a green light, I let my hand make a few broken automatic lines in the margin of my journal, simply to renew my pleasure in making lines, which unexpectedly precipitated another batch of thumbnail sketches. Among them, I roughed out a large square image dominated by a centrally placed tall stone plinth, its once vertical sides roughly chipped and abraded, its flat top tabling a family of as yet unknown objects, pale pink, yellow-green, blue-gray. The absence of any starkly pure, unbroken verticals went straight to my heart. I wrote next to the sketch, “battered but still standing”, and the armchair analyst in me understood exactly what I meant by that. On a whim, I found myself covering the whole surface of the stone with a sentence from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” , which my magpie memory has kept in its hoard since college, when I etched it into the side of a vessel I labored over in Takaezu’s Princeton clay studio: “[&] In the afternoon they came unto a land/ In which it seemed always afternoon” - the “&” my addition, which I then used as a provisional title. I had already cut the occasional word or phrase - or delicately scratched the names and initials of people I’ve known, loved, lost - into the stone surfaces of several earlier works, but this marked the first time I transformed an entire stone surface into a written page, and it positively thrilled me. When I expanded my sketch of “&” into a full-scale preliminary drawing, I knew I wasn’t quite ready for it. I could picture clearly the color relationships between the objects on top of the stone, but the objects themselves were still a mystery to me, mere gestural pencil lines and smudges. And it wasn’t even the right season: local orchards were filling up with summer abundance, the rich sexy colors of ripe fruit were luring me into a warmer palette, and suddenly I was well into another preliminary drawing, a variation of “&”, with two major differences. I saw in my mind’s eye exactly what I wanted the plinth to support, altarlike: from right to left, a half-green apple, its stem in silhouette against a peach glowing orange-red under its fuzz; an ochre bottle in front of a cobalt blue bottle; a ripe purple plum, its stem in the air, and a dark brown nut shell in the middle, a sober little hub for this color wheel of pure tints. But though I again saw the stone as a writing surface, it wasn’t at all clear to me what I wanted to write, epigraphically, on it. Or, more to the point, what the image wanted.

My first idea was a reprise of “amor vincit omnia”, which I had “carved” into one of the building blocks in “Mi Sol Fa”, a visual autobiography I completed just after my mother’s death in 2008. That brief sentence, from Virgil’s Eclogue X, put a kind of period at the end of my mother’s life (even the first four letters of “vincit” constitute her initials, Virginia Irene Newkumet Crawley), but it seemed to veer me off the track that was leading me toward this new image. Having conjured up those still vivid memories from 2008, it seems inevitable to me now that I would toy, in my first revision, with the final words of Catullus’s tribute to his dead brother, “ave atque vale” - “hail and farewell “ - another shard of poetry in my memory’s hoard. My loose drawing of the shapes and layout of the words thoroughly pleased me, on a formal level, but thematically I was even less satisfied. When it finally occurred to me that I missed the invocation to the power of love in “amor vincit omnia”, I remembered a bit of Greek I memorized - was required to memorize - as a part of my undergraduate Classics minor, the opening lines of the only Sappho poem that has survived complete, her prayer to “Poikilothron’ athanat’ Aphrodita” - “deathless Aphrodite on your richly painted throne.” Scanning online samples of 3rd 4th century BC epigraphy seemed to make my decision for me, and even as I arranged and rearranged the original Greek in my second revision I understood for whom the offering of these “richly painted” objects had been clustered on this altar: the goddess who grants us love, which can blind or clarify the mind, and whose chief characteristic is beauty, which can fulfill or defeat our yearnings. Secondary details quickly suggested themselves: a crack near the top of the stone in the shape of Kythera, the Greek island on the shores of which - in some versions of her history - Aphrodite was born from the sea’s “slumbrous sheet of foam” (Tennyson again); pocks mapping a portion of the summer night sky, dense with constellations that iconographically evoke her, or other Olympians closely associated with her - Cygnus the Swan, Delphinus the Dolphin, Sagitta the Arrow, Lyra the Lyre; a shadowy arc tracing a portion of the path of the planet Venus, its symbol attached to it like an amulet; a stylized leaf I copied from a classical wall fragment in Rome: ROMA = AMOR backwards, as ancient Romans were happy to point out. The date, a Roman numeral XII, is scratched into the wall as if with the tip of a knife, and my “M” mark sits between the ten and the two. I borrowed the title from the goddess herself, aka Cytherea.

When I laid in the rest of the black around the finished center of the image, I stepped back and (as I wrote in my journal) “. . . . . seeing it whole for the first time . . . . . I felt quietly pleased with myself, but less pleased than surprised. In so many ways - now, thirty years into full-time studio work - I think I know what I’m doing, I plan so carefully the future of every image, I can almost see my destination ahead of me, but increasingly I feel these shocks of surprise when I arrive there, put down the chalk, and face, at last, the complete picture’s independent vitality, its utterly delightful and potent strangeness.” Which is, come to think of it, a perfectly sound description of looking for love and finding it. Or, more to the point, being found by it. Aphrodite, on her richly painted throne, would smile.

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