Thomas Micchelli. 2 Bacchantes (bent & straight). 2015. Oil on panel. 24 x 18 in.
On the occasion of Thomas Micchelli’s solo exhibition, Bacchantes and Bivalves, the artist sat down with fellow artist, Linda Francis. In this interview, Micchelli discusses his interest in mythology, sensuality and the interplay between painting and drawing. Bacchantes and Bivalves is on view until March 1, 2015 at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY.
Linda Francis: You have said that in your current show, Bacchantes and Bivalves, the bacchantes partially derive from the theater piece Dionysus in ‘69 by Richard Schechner, produced in 1968-69 by the Performance Group [which later became the Wooster Group]. The play was derived from one of Euripides’ last works and most complex, The Bacchae… How did you come upon Schechner’s piece, and what made you decide to work with it?
Thomas Micchelli: I found the book of the Performance Group’s play many years ago — I was probably still in my twenties — but it became a kind of touchstone, along with such influences as Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art and Antonin Artaud’s Theater and Its Double — where the ideal lay in works that are emotionally raw, stripped-down, dream-like…
What drew me to the bacchantes, to The Bacchae and to Dionysus in ’69, is that they are representative of the indivisibility of creation and destruction, the twinning of the exalted and the debased, the impossibility of one without the other.
Bacchantes, interestingly, come with very little baggage — you don’t see much imagery relating to them in Western Art after Attic vase painting — and so there aren’t a lot of tropes to avoid. They’re something of a blank slate: they can be seen simply as nudes, or if the viewer wants to dig deeper, there are mythological and literary connotations to be considered.
LF: In Euripides’ tragedy, King Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus, is destroyed by the god Dionysus for perpetuating the falsity that he, Dionysus, was not the son of Zeus. Dionysus, in an increasing orgy of rage and destruction, wreaks havoc upon Pentheus’ mother Agave, his aunts and family of the House of Cadmus for their deceit and disrespect; he destroys Pentheus’ city of Thebes and finally sends Pentheus to a horrific end. The play is a profound investigation of the split between what is termed the Dionysian and the Apollonian in human nature, that is, the irrational and the rational…certainly evident in your work…
TM: What is most intriguing about both The Bacchae and Dionysus in ’69, from a contemporary perspective, is the ambiguity at the heart of the conflict. Pentheus can be derided as an unyielding representative of the Law, an antagonist of “joy and laughter,” which the Bacchantes celebrate in Dionysus, or he can be lionized as a secularist opposing superstition and the cult of personality. Dionysus’s condemnation of Pentheus for not accepting him as a god sounds strange to our ears: of course Pentheus is right — one person invoking divinity for himself is a threat to the social order — and the bloodbath at the end unveils Dionysus as a genocidal, Pol Pot-style narcissist.
LF: The play is narrated, one could say controlled, by Dionysus. Do you see an equation between the artist as maker and the voice of Dionysus?
TM: That’s a bottomless question, but to relate it to two previous points: Dionysius, as the personification of intuition and the irrational, exemplifies formlessness — imagination without limits. He also behaves like a damaged child, a deeply wounded psyche with a pathological need to be revered. How much of the artist is in that?
His persona lies at the crux of the Richard Wagner problem — an extravagantly gifted form-breaker who was also a hideous human being. Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Nietzsche contra Wagner,” wrote that he initially interpreted Wagner’s music as “the expression of a Dionysian powerfulness of soul,” a position he later recanted. A little further on he says that in the Dionysian artist, “evil, purposelessness and ugliness seem just as allowable as they are in nature.” That is the amoral, dangerous freedom that comes with the territory, which Wagner and other artists have carried into their personal actions and beliefs. Still, it is a concept that has to be dealt with if you’re going to strip your art down to its essentials without regard to what came before.
LF: So then, what is your working process?
TM: Rather chaotic, less so in the drawings than in the paintings, which are often free-for-alls in terms of intention and technique: picking up and disposing of approaches as they prove useful one moment and useless the next; trusting that some kind of unity will emerge within a body of work without striving for it in terms of form or style.
I find myself cleaving away my knowledge of art history to come up with a direct relationship to the paint, something that relates to the unmediated experience of the material on the surface — it’s an impossible task, but it’s my goal with each painting.
The paintings and drawings in this show tread the line between structure and intuition. They are entirely products of imagination — no source imagery is used — and so each picture is a constant interplay between geometry and improvisation; I strive to situate the imagery in specificity without succumbing to the anecdotal. The drawings are driven by the negative shapes and the paintings emerge out of the massing of material and color.
LF: The work is very hot, sensuous. The reversal of genders and roles is startling, as is the use of bees on the bodies of the bacchantes — it pushes the range of sensation further. It brings to mind Euripides, when the fennel wands that some of the bacchae are carrying begin to drip honey.
TM: In the drawings there are male bacchantes, in a departure from the all-female cultists in The Bacchae, and the women are clearly dominant — some are violent and aggressive and others are contemplative. The paintings, for the most part, do not follow any one particular drawing. Each one is constantly pulled apart and painted over until some configuration made sense. And so most were done in the heat of the moment, which perhaps carried over into the color, texture and stroke.
In Dionysius in ’69, which adapts the William Arrowsmith translation of The Bacchae, there are the repeated lines — “He [Dionysius] delights in raw flesh. With milk the earth flows. It flows with wine. It runs with the nectar of bees.” — which I translated into bees swarming across the skin of some of the figures. That image was a response to the almost intolerable tension between pleasure and pain recurring throughout the play.
LF: In the drawings, the line is very slow. It is almost burned into the paper, drawn with great attention to silhouette and detail. In looking, one seems to reenact its making.
TM: Working without a visual referent puts the onus of the image entirely on the interaction of line, shape and pattern. The turns of the contour create the positive form while being compressed by the negative space around it. There’s a constant back-and-forth between the three-dimensional illusion and the two-dimensional reality of the page, without one yielding to the other. The depth of the line is partially the result of using soft graphite, which leaves a strong, velvety presence on the surface.
LF: One feels the progress of the line as a kind of mapping, as though the line can close a form but in fact encloses a space, that each has the possibility to morph into the other, and at any point or place.
TM: Interesting that you use the word “mapping” — I use “charting” as a way of thinking about my use of line, in both the drawings and the paintings. I seek a sensation of weight and density in my forms, but I also want to assemble an overall scheme that feels malleable, not nailed down. The lines make connections, but they’re tenuous, intermittent. I don’t plan out the relationships between the shapes (whether one echoes or aligns with another, for example) but rather seek to undermine a conventional sense of stability within the composition. The shapes ultimately relate to each other, but in a way that creeps up on me.
LF: There is a pervasive attitude towards symmetry in structure and metaphor. In the paintings as well as in the drawings, there is an equation between the structure of the format, abstract bands or shapes and the figure.
TM: The drawings are enclosed by a border, not unlike a political cartoon, so that the negative shapes guide the drawing from the outside in. The paintings are divided between representational and non-representational sections. It’s a binary image, which I was led to intuitively. I’m not an abstract artist, and I don’t really consider the non-representational sections as true abstractions — rather, they are suggestive passages of paint, some simple, some complex, that seem to derive from the emotional foundation of the piece.
LF: In the paintings, the color is deep and brooding, the figures move into the ground, they seem to turn away from anything outside themselves. The surface is tactile…
TM: As in the drawings, the figures in the paintings engage in an interplay between two and three dimensions, but with paint there is obviously more potential for complexity in the spatial arrangements. Another difference is that with the drawings, the imagery could feel more incidental — more specific in its actions — without becoming trapped in a single narrative, while the paintings seem to demand a much more open-ended approach. Perhaps it is because there is so much else going on in them, but if I were to become too specific in the description of a face, for example, the formal balance would be skewed — attention would be drawn inordinately to that section. I ended up cropping the faces in most of the paintings, locating the expression in the treatment of the body and limbs.
LF: I would say that these works are neither narrative, figurative in the sense of verisimilitude, or abstraction. I don’t see them as partaking of language per se. They inhabit the world of the mind in which stories are not literal. Reaching for them involves a kind of new fabrication, a weaving of a field of myth. It arises out of inchoate fragments of experience, comes from free-floating images and associations that are tied to the senses and are released through setting them down.
TM: You’ve characterized them as the sum of their negations, but in many ways that’s exactly what they are. You’ve also put your finger on what I’m after, whether I’ve achieved it or not. While the imagery relates to a specific theme, no knowledge of the original narrative is required. You’re right: they’re all about sensation, which is endlessly shifting, and meanings land where they want.