Fungible Beauty

Fungible Beauty

This November I have been thinking about Adamo Macri’s portraits, specifically the one entitled Utterly Fungible and the Suspension of Disbelief. I’ve also been perusing pictures of the Alexander Palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, and remembering my visit there. At the time this neo-classical building designed by Giacomo Quarenghi in the late 18th century seemed neglected, the stucco flaking, its Palladian grace compromised by an air of retreat and sadness lingering among its pillars and portico. Headquarters of the Germans during their siege of Leningrad, and a burial ground for SS soldiers, for the most part it escaped massive destruction. Down the road bus loads of tourists had lined up to visit Catherine the Great’s wedding-cake palace, gutted and set ablaze by the retreating Germans, and restored to something like its original form and appearance after the Great War of Liberation, as the Russians call World War II. Having already gawked and gaped in the Amber Room and strolled through the gardens of the empress, I decided to wander about the town of Tsarskoye Selo and find my way to the Alexander, the last royal residence of the murdered Romanov family, not then open to view, although one could pass through the gates and enter the grounds. More restorations have been done since my visit, and the palace is now accessible to the general public. Perhaps the fate of the Romanovs contributed to the melancholic atmosphere as I sauntered along an overgrown path to a pond where the children, four girls (including the fabled Anastasia) and their brother Alexei, used to play and putter about the reeds and shallows. No guards confronted me; I was alone. The water was as still as a lagoon separated from a turbulent sea, although the pond is not actually a lagoon; I just fancied it so. I cannot overestimate the role of fancy in my thoughts and feelings, never more soon when faced with a Macri portrait. As soon as I thought of a lagoon, my memory immediately unrolled a scene from the now classic horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon, wherein the dark water is the natural home of an amphibious humanoid figure, the Gill Man, who terrifies unwary swimmers and other intruders. All historical awareness of the lives and deaths of the Romanovs drowned in an instant and I shivered, despite the heat of the day. I didn’t expect a creature to emerge dripping from the water, gills flaring, webbed hands spreading. The Romanov children had suffered real rather than imaginary horrors, but for a moment on that spot within sight of an abandoned palace, I confused historical fact with cinematic fiction, and hurried away, past a guard who had appeared by the gates and looked as if he wanted to ask me for my papers, but he lit a brown cigarette and looked away. I put the incident behind me and haven’t even thought of the film, but memory is a contrary kind of river, currents going every which way influencing my feelings and thoughts about Adamo Macri’s recent portrait, Utterly Fungible and the Suspension of Disbelief.  Like much of his work, the portrait is immediately striking, if only because of the apparatus covering the mouth. I don’t think of it as an addition or piece of costume, but as an inextricable feature of the face, regardless of the fact that I suspect it can be removed, and simply hang on a chain from the neck like a jewel. In fact a second “mouth” does just that in the portrait. The man is both an unfamiliar creature and a familiar human being. The word fungible in the title, of course, provides a direction and a reminder. Macri indicates that change and transformations are central to his art. This is not news to people who admire his creations. I recall other portraits where he plays with concepts of the self and the endless metamorphoses of life, from the cell to the fully formed, always mutating, always transmuting, always leading our understanding and perceptions towards new ways of being. Not so long ago the artist posted photos
of himself on Facebook standing on an impressive, curving staircase in New York city: calm, darkly attired, confident, even authoritative, dark glasses, which are a common feature in many of his portraits. Macri is extremely careful in how he arranges his eyes. I use the verb “arranges” deliberately because I could write an entire study of his eyes. These particular photos seem to reveal the man himself, except I fancy a kind of ironic play at work in his deliberate pose: I pause momentarily, he seems to say, so catch me like this while you can for soon I’ll change. Is it Macri the man, or Macri the artist, or Macri as a work of art? The figure on the stairs is dramatic, imposing, and essentially mysterious like any one of his fine and subtle portraits, including Utterly Fungible. The characters, or dramatic personae, in Macri’s art are often free from rigid social definitions and distinctions of gender and identity. A word used in Economics, fungible by definition means the ability to be exchanged, one thing substituted for another without loss of value. Never one to insist upon one meaning or identity to the exclusion of another, Macri encourages speculation and wonder, and I am doing precisely that. The word precisely, though, is inappropriate because it’s impossible to be precise when talking about his art, one of the reasons why I remain fascinated by it, since alteration, transformation and ever-shifting appearances are the dynamic processes at work. Now, one might ask, what on earth, or in the water, does this have to do with a movie creature that frequents the black lagoon and terrifies ladies? I am not terrified by Macri’s portrait, as I doubt terror is among his purposes, but I am intrigued by his use of cinematic costuming, special effects, and cosmetics that transform the appearance of things. He is deeply engaged in the discovery of what constitutes the human in a world wherein the notion of human is often tenuous, and certainly fungible, especially when hard metals and the intricate dimensions of digital electronics can be interfaced with the soft and multilayered complexity of the flesh. At what point can one cease to be completely human in any traditional sense of the word and become partially mechanical or electronic, transformed into a new and sometimes troubling kind of creation? Although the creature from the lagoon to all intents and purposes is physically humanoid in structure with two legs, two arms, two eyes, and so on, it is also decidedly amphibious in appearance with gills, webbed hands, and a mouth like a fish, similar in some respects to the mouth of Macri’s own fungible creature. I offer no definitive answer, nor should there be. It’s unprofitable to my mind at any rate to insist upon an allegorical reading of this image. Even though symbols and cultural allusions, and aspects of science and history are evident in his portraits, allegory fails to do justice to what is essentially mysterious in the art. I am reminded of Keats’ great statement about so-called negative capability in one of his letters, which is a state of mind when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. I accept Keats’s view to a point because I like facts and I admire reason, and we can’t do without either.
I also celebrate science as a magnificent achievement of human genius. It doesn’t weaken the wonders of the world or reduce life to a series of facts, but enlarges it to a vision of beauty and knowledge and human aspirations. Allowing that Keats was essentially reacting against 18th-century rationalism, I understand his argument about the irritable reaching after fact & reason, especially when it comes to art and poetry. Such an effort risks diminishing the work, reducing it to allegory, rendering it static and depriving it of human mystery. Even as we understand the laws of the universe and dissect nature in order to understand and possibly to improve our lives, we must accept the phenomenon of unknowable elements and the importance of the mystery in art. I also remind myself that Macri is sympathetic to the wonders of science and relies on fundamental aspects of nature and scientific laws in many of his own creations. There is, nonetheless, a mysterious kind of atmosphere in this fungible portrait, just as there was a melancholic atmosphere surrounding the Alexander Palace before renovations. Appealingly coloured in hues of ochre and sand, the head free from ornamentation, the eyes as always carefully and dramatically “arranged,” the strange amphibian-like structure in place of a normal human mouth, doubled by a similar looking pendant, the flesh bare except for a sand coloured cloth over the left shoulder, I understand and do not understand. The portrait is warm and sensuous, the head tilted, the alluring eyes with their theatrical mascara and looking down, invites one into the portrait, if only to caress the mouth, which admittedly rivets attention, but is not the only important feature of this ravishing image. Somewhat alien, as if a creature has in fact emerged from a lagoon, not to terrify, but to discombobulate and ultimately seduce. I am uncertain of what I am seeing, but I desire to see more, and from that uncertainty and desire I derive a new kind of insight and knowledge about human identity, tenuousness, and startling paradoxes. And, indeed, Macri creates beauty out of deformity. By deformity I mean the violation of our accepted and standard opinions about beauty, and our particular biases about how we are supposed to look. This is a great portrait, but I am biased in Macri’s favour, having written much about his achievement over the years. His work entrances and often leaves me befuddled and obsessed, even as I pitch a fork or delve with a spade in my gardens, and putter about dying vegetation on a grey November day. I imagine his many apparitions peering into my thoughts, or peeking through the dark brown clusters of seedpods dangling from branches of the black locust tree, or dare I say, swimming stealthily towards me in a lagoon, or even that deserted pond on the Alexander Palace estate. Despite its sensually vibrant nature, this portrait also has an autumnal air about it, but that may be my own awareness of the many shades of ochre and gold in November. Far from being certain of what he means in his art, and where I stand in relation to his genius, I have often contradicted myself. That is a reasonable thing to do with this artist, because I cannot strain, cannot reach irritably after fact and reason, but I allow myself to slip silently into and spy on his world. The silence of his portraits speaks volumes about mystery, contradictions, changes, origins and endings. There is a beauty also in decomposition, and this artist often creates art out of decay. The only thing definite I can say about Macri’s art is that it’s more a process than a product, which is stating the obvious and may well be true of many artists. I think he may be driven to cover facts and meaning with mystery, not for the sake of obscurity and befuddlement, but for the sake of wonder, newness, beauty and the continuation of life in the midst of despair and rot. Somewhere in an interview, the artist quotes Einstein, and the passage is particularly relevant: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed. The second half of the title to this work, the Suspension of Disbelief, is crucially apt. The concept of suspending belief, another way of saying it, enjoys a long history as far back as the ancient Greeks. I believe Aristotle refers to its necessity for an audience watching an Aeschylean or Sophoclean tragedy unfold before their eyes. They must accept the drama as real for the moment, if they are to understand and experience catharsis. We cannot go far in the enjoyment and revelation of most art if we fight against it with arguments about facts, plausibility and skepticism. In Chapter XIV of his monumental, often recondite work, Biographia  Literaria, Coleridge explains his part in the writing of the famous Lyrical Ballads with fellow poet Wordsworth: It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. So, in a sweet state of suspension, I wonder over the fungible portrait as I wander among my dying gardens, the odours of decay wafted by the chill breeze. I admire Macri’s sense of the meaning of colour, as well as the exceptional pose and poise, equal to that in another recent portrait SPOct19, which is imbued with the same ochre and golden sand. One striking difference between them (not the only one) is that the head in SPOct19 is completely human. However mysterious the person in this portrait may be, I fancy that Macri has taken and blended him with a creature of the sea, giving him a mouth I have never seen before. I am only speculating here, not reaching after facts and certainty. The mouth is a quasi-operatic elaboration of one feature, a touch of the gargoyle, a tinge of the demonic. What kind of language or sounds would such a strange mouth, or mouths (for there are two in the portrait) utter: growl or grunt, mewl or mumble, philosophy or poetry, denunciation or desires? It speaks to me, however, in whatever language or words my imagination allows it to speak. Indeed, sometimes a riotous conversation takes place in my mind in the silence of a Macri portrait. In any case the creature could well belong to a denizen of mythological Atlantis, some of whose population survived the island’s sinking in the ocean by adapting, by evolving, by becoming something other than they were, by somehow, through the magic of art and the mystery of science, mingling their human selves with amphibians. I am not looking for allegory, but a fanciful analogy to help clarify my puzzling thoughts. Studying other works of art by Adamo Macri, I see how fascinated the artist is with the notion of gender fluidity and cross-fertilization of species, and the use of disparate, paradoxical parts to create a new, stunning whole. I look at the strange, quasi-human creature in a symbolic sea lurking among the fronds in the Epizoochory series. I say “sea” because of the plant life stirred by currents rather than breeze, and the green colour in the background of several, even though there are seed images brilliantly lit by yellow. Then I consider Dust Roe, a superb portrait, about which I have written elsewhere, depicting again a blending, of species and associations with water and its fluidity, not to mention its own unique mouth. Going back to his Exuviae works, again I recognize Macri’s preoccupation with forms and elements from the natural world. He creates something previously unknown or unseen by connecting and fusing disparate elements from both the organic and inorganic worlds. Sometimes a startling image emerges, like the amphibious head of Jahrfish, which leads me back to the Gill Man in the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon. Alternatively, the mouth may not be connected with an underwater creature at all, but is an aspect of a landed animal. I contradict myself. How can I know? In one portrait of a head completely covered with a shimmering, deeply blue mask, tinged with black like the colouring of a panther under moonlight, there’s a similar structure over the mouth, as if the artist is experimenting with a different kind of creature altogether. This process continues in the amazing and, dare I say, over-the-top Triffid works (about which I have also written). Therein Macri plays with the seductions of monstrosity and the erotic implications of beauty mingled with ugliness, leading to the appearance of and performance by the artist himself arraigned in costume and accoutrements of the human and the animal, of the organic and inorganic, one hand disappearing in the head of a grotesquely beautiful and mesmerizing puppet, in the exhibition of his complex art entitled Identity Matrix held at the Erga Gallery in Montreal.
So, the Alexander Palace is now open to the public and busloads of tourists will change the atmosphere. The pond may still be there with its quiet underwater life, and the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon is considered a classic of its genre. My gardens deepen in the colours of dying, and Macri’s portraits continue to fascinate and glow in exquisite changeability. I remind myself that autumn is fundamentally a period of readjustment and rest, and seemingly perishes returns in the spring. Thinking of the particular wonders of Adamo Macri’s art, I cut down the brittle and brown stems of phlox and other frost-bitten plants, hear enticing whispers of strange creatures luring me to the darkness of the cave, or the depths of sea. I also remember Henry James’s famous dictum: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, and I know of no substitute for the force and beauty of it’s process.”

2 thoughts on “Fungible Beauty

  1. I love this writing. Radu's critique makes explicit so many of the feelings I have about your work. For me your portraits exceed mere allegory. Within the frames of your remarkable portraits I feel the convergence of so many factors and forces, whole landscapes and entire historical quotations not immediately viable or obvious. Factors and forces that intersect in your choice of lighting and costuming. In your portraits the human and nonhuman converge and converse in a most amazing way! <3

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