The Garden of Hesperides

During the summer of 2004, several days after completing “Stele”, I began to make sketches for another tall image - same format, same scale, “like a door I might move through”, as a friend, cellist Marie Cadieux, put it, “not just a window I can only look out of.” Asymmetry had governed the structure of “Stele”, its niche bleeding off the right edge, but in the first thumbnail of the new picture an even larger niche positioned itself in compositional center, separations in the stone wall branching off a central vertical division. All divisions in the stone ultimately disappeared, but through many revisions that symmetrical placement of a deep and densely crowded niche remained a constant.

In the second thumbnail, a few leaves poked up above the top of the wall from behind, and that was the moment when a core excitement took hold of me. Like many people - in many cultures and eras - I’m fascinated by walled enclosures, safe havens or strongholds: cloisters, Shangra La’s, secret gardens. I’ve played with this theme before: the first poem I wrote as an adult (translate: post-college), began with two spare lines: “Over the wall / there is that other garden.” And the first time I replaced the tabletop or pantry shelf of traditional still-life with a fragment of stone wall (“On the Edge”, 1988), I also included a cluster of leafless stems behind it, a slightly unsettling suggestion of a wilderness beyond the protected space of a walled garden. Over the next two decades, that trope occasionally reappeared, but here, even in the preliminary sketches, it was clear to me that we - artist & viewer - were outside the garden, the tops of trees showing above its boundary wall luring our imaginations in.

It was an easy next step into the world of classical myth (another lifelong fascination) and in particular the story of the eleventh labor of Hercules, his search for the golden apples that grew in the walled garden of the Hesperides. My intention was not, of course, to depict events and characters directly (I’m a still-life painter, no?), but rather to layer the work with allusions to them and to create a visual puzzle that would, for viewers willing and able to connect the clues, transform the general idea of a walled garden into one particular walled garden famous in the ancient Greek and Roman world. But just who or what were the Hesperides?

Let me recap the story as briefly as I can, bracketing the elements in the image pertinent to it: Hera’s hostility doomed Hercules [deep pocks in the center of the wall pick out the constellation of Hercules] to submit to the labors imposed on him by King Eurystheus, who required him, after his tenth labor, to find and fetch the golden apples sacred to Hera [two yellow/red apples in the niche, the leafy tops of an apple tree above the wall]. Hercules spent years searching for the walled garden or orchard containing the sacred tree [a partial map of the Mediterranean sprawls across the corroded surface of the large canning jar just above the blue egg], and when after many years he found it [“AT LAST”], he discovered that it was guarded by the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas [the jar is an “Atlas”, as jar connoisseurs might guess, and one of the “stars” in the constellation of Hercules chips out the bottom half of the last “T” in “AT LAST”, which can be visually compressed into AT LAS], a powerful Titan who holds up the celestial globe [in the center of the niche, a blue egg poised on a rusted column of iron]. The tree is also guarded by Ladon, a dragon [cracks in the stone to the right of the niche suggest a dragon’s head in profile, and the constellation of Draco winds around and under the small square opening near the bottom of the image]. Hercules [a green olive, sacred to Hercules, sits next to the bunch of keys] shoots an arrow [the constellation of the Arrow sits below the constellation of Hercules, pointing at Draco] and kills Lagon, and then persuades Atlas to go inside the garden and retrieve the apples for him, while he temporarily holds the heavens up. The coda to the story takes a humorous twist: Atlas, relishing his new freedom, tries to persuade Hercules to let him, Atlas, bring the apples to Eurystheus. Hercules slyly agrees, but only on condition that Atlas briefly take the burden back so that Hercules can pad his shoulders. Atlas agrees, and Hercules dashes off with the apples. In my version, Hercules scratches eleven marks on the wall with a burnt stick just before he leaves the Titan to his fate: eleventh labor done.

Not all the picture’s elements directly reference this episode in the life of Hercules. The ghostly group of bottles in the niche might call to mind the Olympian gods’ oversight of human affairs, but the square window with its cruciform grate and the splayed bunch of brass train conductor keys seem to reinforce, at least to my mind, the sense of mystery, the discomfiting allure of the unknown, lying at the heart of the idea that came to me a full year before later embellishments tied it to one specific narrative. I remember picking up those keys in a flea market, feeling their weight and wondering - before I learned anything about their original function - what locks they once opened. If those locks still exist, would the keys still turn the wards, would the hinges still swing the doors, and what might lie behind them? What lies behind most doors? Exactly what we expect, nothing more. Apples, not golden apples. But barriers and difficulties of all kinds, walls we have to scale or circumvent, any sort of obstacle that stands between us and our hope’s end, have provisions of their own: they tempt us, excite us, test and strengthen us in ways we cannot predict. And secret gardens never disappoint as metaphors: they represent, if nothing else, everything that thrives in the unconscious, the greener grass of elusive heavens on earth, the hidden goal of all arduous quests.

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