It had just been leaning there against the wall propped up on the bookcase – slanted, crooked, scuffed up - with a huge advertisement for Mexico plastered across the bottom of it. I’d found this poster of a great Frida Kahlo self-portrait on my block – mounted on foamcore with its museum style tourism propaganda bannered unapologetically over its bottom. Pulled it down, fumbled for the Xacto & T-square and started slicing. Like on the Playa – “No commercial messages allowed”.
Pulled the nail out of the wall – frosted with the grey rose madder of the wall color – shoved it through the top of the foam core in a leaf above the Madonna’s head, grabbed for Grampa Motto’s hammer and banged it into the wall. Ha. 14 years in this corner over Houston and not one noise complaint. Lately His Majesty Johnny Come Lately has taken to tapping his ceiling below me whenever the fancy strikes. When its late & loud I turn it down but its 14 years so he can take his little tapping stick and stick it up… … hey … wait a minute…
…this poster of Frida on the wall in my studio… I just seem to have absent-mindedly dragged it into my inner sanctum. That’s a bit strange, I mean, I’m not her biggest fan – I mean, I absolutely love her work, her energy but… hanging her self-portrait on the wall of my studio… why? What’s that about? I really just hung it up without thinking at all as if it were just the normal thing to do. Does it mean I’m unconsciously attracted to her intensity – her indefatigable drive to create art and experience life? In terms of historic fact, I actually know very little about her. Of course you think of her illness, her unrelenting pain. But beyond that her energy was bewilderingly persistent. I gather this almost entirely from her work – as I do with all artists – it seems clearer than what anyone might write about her. From what I can tell, she opened all of her doors and let the clouds blast through from every direction… and some deep raw vulnerable truth emerged… plus the lovely Miss Remedios Varo… what a time, what a crew!
Holy crap. I suddenly realized… “the painting I have hanging on the wall in my living room… its that Frida piece I did up at Summer Stage.” There it was… as I crossed the threshold into the next room, the huge painting in its big gold frame loomed against the wall. Frida Kahlo. WTF?
I had been painting live at Central Park last summer – a sort of unannounced addition to the live music… it was a way for me to get some sun, hear some music and meet some people. On that particular day I knew nothing of the bands about to perform except I’d heard it was a Latin event. So without as much forethought as I’d give a sneeze, I printed out a photo of Our Lady Frida and hauled ass (late again) to Summer Stage. I got the general idea across that day – her face, flowers in her hair, bright colors. Lots of folks stopped to say they loved it – loved her. But I never finished it. That whole summer while I was working feverishly at GalleryBar, I’d set up my easel and get to work right in the middle of Orchard Street. (They block off the street on Sundays.) I reworked it one time then and got it to a decent point. But still – not quite finished.
So – Frida Kahlo in my studio AND my living room? That’s a little strange. Not only that but it seems to have happened without my realizing it. It reminded me that Oriah had spoken with a psychic – an amazing woman who sees freely into past lives and whatnot. When Oriah mentioned me to her, this woman replied that I am moving through an intensely powerful change in my life and that I am being guided very closely. Was Frida my spirit guide?
As I walked back into my studio room still a bit curious, my line of sight fell across a new painting I’d been working on. A collaged portrait of a young Mexican girl surrounded by images of Mascaras, guerillas, families, Jesus and… FRIDA! I forgot about that! At the very top of the painting - as if the quiet center of a deliberate shrine – I had pasted in a torn image of Frida lying in bed holding a bejeweled skull to her chest.
But this was not a deliberate shrine at all. I mean, I usually work pretty intuitively – with little premeditation or preconception – I just go. But the thing is, if someone looked carefully around my home, they might think I was a little obsessed with Frida Kahlo. Which I’m not – as far as I know. I only ever saw one show of her work in Philly a few years ago. I loved it but I never gave it a whole lot of thought.
The next day I went by Oriah’s place to spend the night and morning at one of my other homes (where I’ve been taken in quite unconditionally). During the times I’ve rented out my apartment to road-weary world travelers, I’d either drive away up to East Granby or kinda move in with my new Ethiopian family and get fed nice. So on those long jaunts away from my LES pad (up to a month at times) I would set up a temporary studio out there in the “middle room” on Main Street, on Rosie Eye Land. Oriah had, in her kind way, suggested I set up an easel and paints there as well as GalleryBar so I could work on things at home with her. It wasn’t ideal but it worked in a pinch. Temporary studios are just difficult.
On that particular evening when I strolled into the middle room studio there again was Miss Frida – staring ever so intently back at me. One of us had saved the pamphlet from the Philadelphia exhibit and I had – once again – absent-mindedly propped it up against the window allowing her to oversee my workspace. There weren’t any other images of artists or artwork or anything else there – just Frida.
“You gotta be kidding me. This is too much,” I thought out loud. “That makes four.” I remembered the movie ‘Frida’ that Rani had given me when she moved… I’d watched it at my house alone. I really enjoyed it. I don’t buy movies. I rent them occasionally but I certainly don’t own very many. That could honestly be my only one. “That makes 5.”
April 28 had been a weird day. I’d woken up at 7am completely rested but gluttonously went back to sleep. I had driven back late to New York from the farm up north the night before with my 18-year-old niece, Cassie, who had just returned from a 3-month backpacking sojourn through Argentina and Chile. I was jealous and wanted to hear all about it. She needed to meet an ex-boyfriend in Brooklyn to get her stuff back (oh the drama of teen romance) and so she rode out to my city digs with me in my beloved, disheveled, be-horned, flaming, dependable bucket of Japanese bolts.
But as I mentioned it was a weird day. If I’d had amazing powers of foresight perhaps I would have recognized the symptoms of the gestation period that occasionally emerges before the occurrence of a sizeable pop of inspiration but as far as I could tell at the time I was just having a super weird day. I felt awkward in my skin – I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I had responsibilities pending – fending off the urge to even consider them, I reached for coffee, ate insanely spicy, cheap Indian food (chilies on the side next time please!) and all in all made a pretty scattered and lousy Uncle tour-guide to a kid who really didn’t expect much anyways. I guess I don’t know how to describe the day – it was just weird, frustrating. Nothing seemed right. My clothes didn’t really fit. When I caught my reflection in a window I would cringe – “is that me? God I look awful.” An old friend called and I couldn’t even talk – we were trying to catch up but I couldn’t remember what I’d been up to or what to ask… At Union Square we suddenly realized the time, hopped the train back to Suffolk Street, grabbed her bags and off Cassie went to catch her bus back home.
Back at my place alone I kinda collapsed in the studio. Raising my heavy eyelids I am met by hers… Frida’s. Oh yeah. That weird Frida thing. I laid there staring at her for a bit in some distorted uncomfortable position, wondering whether or not my mind is capable of understanding the idea that a celebrated disembodied entity is attempting to communicate with me.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to find that there are no such things as meaningless coincidences in my life. Be it a matter of perception, choice or the result of observations – my view is that these things are tied. This universe is a system, built to operate in specific ways – there are laws of nature and to assume that there is no intelligence at play would be the type of thought process assigned to another cranium’s circuitry. I am compelled to recognize the inherent interdependence and over-reaching network of expansion that links all beings, matter and energy in what I like to think of as cinematic unison. To spill it out in colloquial terms (a t-shirtism whether you will or willn’t) – Everything Happens for a Reason. Sure, we spit that out like so much ‘how’s it goin?’ but for my dough its verdad.
Then why is it so hard to wrap my skull around the consideration that I am being contacted – perhaps even guided – by the departed spirit of this renowned “south-o-the-border” pigment-wielding mujer from days of yore? Has my faith in science been so sufficiently inculcated that I’m not as free to believe what I wish as I’d like to be? Has the Western Church of Systematic Evidence so deeply engrained its tenets into my very perception that I am no longer capable of ancestral dreaming – of perceiving energy in the overlap of dimension and time? Or is it just hard to swallow based on what Doubting Thomas sees in his day-to-day meanderings?
“Don’t waste any time wondering how or why”, Oriah had said to me. “She is clearly reaching out to you so just get past whatever you have to and just tune into it.”
Sound advice (as I’ve come to expect) but maybe easier said than done?
Or is it just as simple as saying, “Ok – I’m listening. What now?” Maybe that’s all there is to it. Keeping your ‘ears and eyes’ open for whatever may come.
“I hate that painting,” I thought as I stared at the huge portrait of Frida I’d done. “Her face is ok but the background is the wrong color, her shoulders are to high and for some reason I can no longer stomach these dead-pan portraits of famous people. It just doesn’t reach past the t-shirt stigma.”
I’d been meaning to rework this piece. I remember loving the size of it – the impact of its scale… I had needed a big central piece for a show I was hanging and for lack of a better one I spent 300 bucks on a big gold frame hoping it would somehow overpower the fact that it was unresolved. I’d wanted the gold frame with the red accents but all they had was green. Well, the price was right and I needed it yesterday so I’d just went with it. Funny how in trying to sort of fluff it up I ended up actually bringing more attention to the fact that it wasn’t sorted. I don’t think I expressed this to anyone but I secretly loathed this painting of Frida, which had somehow become the center of my two primary exhibitions that year. It appeared behind me in a photo in the NY Post article about The Governors Island Art Fair as well as in a brief swoosh-by of the camera on Fox News. And I secretly cringed respectively.
In spite of her agreeing with me about the idea that I should lean away from the famous-people portraits, Oriah really liked the piece, which was part of the reason it ended up hanging in my living room. But every time I passed it I would think over and over, “That thing needs work.”
And staring up at Frida’s intense eyes as she’d painted them in the self-portrait on the poster in my studio, I realized the time had come. I hopped up, and bolted into the living room to FINALLY take that stupid painting off the wall and drag it into the studio. God, it was heavy. I took the unfinished portrait of the three Romanian shepherds that I’d begun and used it to fill the glaring void on the living room wall.
I stood the painting of Frida up on end in the center of the studio to have a good look at her. As I considered an approach, my hand drifted away from supporting the frame’s upright position when I realized that it was balancing on end all by itself. I looked up at the Frida poster – she stared back at me intensely. I looked back at the big painting in the gold frame standing on end in the middle of the studio. I gave it a little nudge. It teetered a little but righted itself. It really just wanted to stand up straight on its end.
“Okay,” I thought. “I guess I’m beginning to get acquainted with this sort of Frida-based weirdness. Now there are paintings doing balancing acts. That’s cool.” I looked back up at the poster. She was still staring at me – looking more and more alive.
I found myself a little distracted, working on some other thing a while later in the kitchen when I heard a loud >bang< from the studio room. “Shit! The painting!” I’d left it standing on end, completely disregarding the fact that this is not how a painting is meant to be left and now I envisioned, as I bounded in the direction of the studio, poor Frida lying at a horrific angle with some sort of street-scavenged debris driven spike-like through her forehead. But what I found was different than what I’d imagined. To my amazement I saw the painting still standing upright! What had fallen down was a wooden sign that I had hung on the wall near the Frida poster. Maybe she decided she needed the space… I took the sign and put it with some other objects in the corner rather than back up on the wall near my new friend. She seemed to almost be calling the shots. Her energy was sort of aggressive… no nonsense.
Suddenly I needed music! I’d been moving stuff around lately – reconsidering every inch of my apartment… rebuilding and moving my new studio into my former bedroom. The shelf that housed the stereo had just been moved a few days earlier in a fantastic space-saving act but the speaker wires were all hammered down, tucked out of sight and it was a bit of a chore I’d been avoiding to rewire them. But now I needed music. It’d been days.
Throwing furniture, boxes & paintings out of the way, I violently ripped the poor cables out, staple nails flying from their footholds until I had the whole bundle of wire at my disposal. “Just for the time being,” I thought as I flung the wires up over the door, behind a frame and up over to the stereo’s new home. There were stacks and racks of papers on top of the stereo that had to be filed and sorted (or were they already??) but more importantly they had to be moved in order to plug in the speaker wires - so I fumbled and yanked and shoved and grunted, wires in my teeth, racks and stacks in toppling bundles in my arms until -fwoop- the whole mess began to tumble over-board… slow motion cascade… unidentifiable papers and forms slipping behind the shelf destined not to be seen for a lifetime. As they careened downwards on gravity’s command, I made one ditch effort to save whatever my jutting grip could grasp – when into my hand fell solid and solitary a crisp issue of National Geographic. Of course. I understood immediately.
On the cover was a wolf. I knew in less than an instant that this would be the source of images for the element of collage that would save the Frida painting. She had practically thrown it at me. Above the shelf where the stereo now rested she started down at me, motionless in silent reassurance that yes without a doubt SHE had slapped that book of vibrant photographs into my hand. This was her choice. I felt a twinge of understanding.
So I got to work. I leapt into a frenzy of tearing the brightest, boldest and oddest images I could find out of the magazine… wolves – yes! carnivorous plants – yes! mummies, Nasca Lines – yes! Everything that came out of that book seemed as if it were bespoke specifically for Frida. I remembered my atlas – a big old book of maps with some amazing aerial photographs of the earth. I tore out a condor’s view of the Amazon, an eagle’s version of the Mississippi and some mountain ranges. When I had a stack ready to go, I set to work placing them with tape then glue onto the acrylic portrait that still stood on end in my studio.
(here it is when I began it... as of now it's still in the works :)
I dug in like mad – a true rush of inspiration gripped the wheel and the silly disconnectedness of the day drifted weightlessly into the awkward nostalgia file.
The landforms, rivers and clouds that’d been shot from above wrapped around her gleaming visage effortlessly illustrating the raw earthiness that her spirit embodies as bits of meat-eating botanicals sprouted in her bosom, wolves and poisonous snakes in her hair and the mummified remains of an ancient indigenous woman moaning on her collar bone.
For so long I had been dying for some deeper meaning in my work. I’d written over and over for years on end questioning the role (or lack) of symbolism in my work – what direction to take? – how to utilize this powerful element with grace and effectiveness? I’d even written rather defensively about it on a few occasions, stating that I’d purposely eliminated literal symbolism from my work entirely. Looking back it seems as though I just didn’t know how to deal with it. I’ve always been averse to obviousness – which I still see as the antithesis of artfulness – and misuse of symbols is generally where obviousness can be found. Essentially my desire to retain an element of unpredictability – since surprise is the greatest gift an art-seeker can hope to discover – is what drove me to shy away from the use of charged imagery. I’ve so often seen symbolism used so heavy-handedly – so irresponsibly - and I wanted to be sure to preserve the sublime aspects of understatement in some fashion. I agonized over the subject matter in my work – these simple portraits – where to take them, what to bring to them.
Looking back I recognize how the concept of collage began becoming gradually ever more apparent in my work. There was the self-portrait I’d painted in ‘05 where I’d pasted an anatomical rendering of a heart onto my chest… in my Mr. Pink portrait for Two Boots I included torn pages from an old magicians mail order catalogue as background texture. And I always liked the way it worked. More recently I was commissioned to paint a portrait of Allen Ginsburg and surrounded his face with collaged images of buildings from the Lower East Side and East Village.
But I had never REALLY used collage until I painted the portrait of a little Tibetan girl. As I’ve come to do as a matter of course, I’d torn into a National Geographic – just gutting it from end to end until I’d devoured the entire thing leaving it a spine attached to a mass of shredded book-flesh. In the Tibetan portrait, for the first time in my work the photographic images sprang to life – encircling and enshrouding the central figure with fragmented layers of color, meaning, scale and texture. I remember laughing out loud in eureka-esque moments as bits of overlapping suggestion and implication fell into place effortlessly.
Now rather than a sort of open-ended simplicity around a loose narrative of subtle implication, there was this carnival of inter-related overlap where endless symbioses thrived. It was like adding another million monkeys to the typing session… that much more Shakespeare began to emerge!
Now by proxy of symbolic overload I had created more layers of meaning than I could ever wish for. Finally my work meant something.
Pure physical fatigue began to set in as I fizzled to a pit stop with the newly collaged Frida portrait. I needed a break. It was 2am and I’d been working for hours. I must have been shoved out the door by someone (any guesses?) because I suddenly found myself on the sidewalk in front of my building.
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. I had no idea why I had gathered up my keys, wallet, etc and shuffled down the stairs and out the door onto Houston Street. I looked out at the night… the street… the cars… My car! Where did I park? OH SHIT!!! I left it in that friggin’ film-shoot tow-zone and I was supposed to move it by 10!!!!”
“It’s towed,” I thought. “There’s no way its not towed by now. I was supposed to move it 4 hours ago.” I became immediately resigned to the fact that somehow I would need to get the $200 or so needed to get it out of the pound tomorrow. I didn’t have the money for this. “Damn you, Frida! Got me all so distracted with my artwork that I dropped the ball.” It didn’t seem fair. Somehow – as I suppose people are apt to feel in these situations – I thought that since I was following my true calling and doing just what I really ought to be doing with my life, this type of result oughtn’t come of it. Just plain sucked.
“Is there any way in hell its still there on 7th Street??” It just didn’t seem possible. “Frida!” I hollered. “You got me into this. You can make my car still be there, can’t you? You want to prove yourself to me? Show me that you really exist? Then let me find my car parked just where I left it and I will never doubt you again.” And I took off running. It was after 2 in the morning on a Wednesday night and the streets were all but empty. I ran like a man possessed in a line-drive for 7th and A. “I know its still there! I know it!” I huffed as I wheezed along speedily. “There’s no way its there,” my dependably negative self-destructive side chimed in.
I didn’t know what I would see when I turned that corner but I honestly expected a very empty block. Those film people didn’t mess around or make exceptions. They were all business. And when I turned the corner I saw 2 things that made me jump. The first was a tow truck that had its victim already wrapped in its gossamer grip – there was no saving that one – and just beyond that, under the shower of the tow truck’s heart-beat dappling of amber light in an otherwise dark and empty street, sat my truck surrounded by orange cones – very clearly the last in line – the next fly in the web just primed to be ingested by the City of New York.
It was a bona-fide miracle. She’d done it. Frida had come through. She’d saved me. That was it. I was convinced. Ne’er more would I doubt my newly discovered spirit guide. I now knew beyond belief that she was looking out for me.
Letting out a whoop of bewildered victory (I had felled Goliath!) I fumbled for my keys as the film’s crewman sauntered over and said,”Well you must be the luckiest sucker on earth cuz your car has been here all night and was gonna disappear in about TWO MINUTES!!” His voice creshendowed as he reached the end of his sentence and my eyes wild with life amidst the amber flashes could do no more than mumble a smattering of “I know”s and “yeah, right, wow”s.
I was never so happy to sit down on that plasticky bench seat in my cruddy little rattle-trap. I turned the key and breathed a long heaving gust of relief out over the dash. I collapsed back onto the seat my head thrown back against the head-rest. My eyes fell to pause on a clipping of paper held to the sun visor on the passenger side. Frida! Another one! For whatever reason after seeing the Philadelphia show, Oriah or I had stuck this little print of yet another Frida self-portrait to the visor. Of course there were no other images of any kind inside the car. Nothing else at all but this little forgotten snip of yet another Frida face.
“Ok,” I said. “I got you. Its for real.” I smiled to myself in the dark and drove away.