Monday, August 12, 2019

the logic of the mad

The artist is undoubtedly mad -- or, at least, mentally tormented.

His name is Jorge. Most of us know him as the disheveled young man who wanders the streets of Barra de Navidad in search of work -- machete in hand and a middle distance stare that sees what the rest of us miss. Or maybe what he sees is simply not there in our restricted frame of reference.

We compliment ourselves by labeling what we see as reality. Jorge sees something different.

He hangs out in a hammock two blocks from my house. Across the street from the Oxxo, where charitable souls buy him the occasional bottle of water. When he is not relying on the kindness of strangers, he will swing in his hammock to the beat of his favorite music played at Mexivolume. Tormented, but content.

I do not know how long his creche with an attitude has accessorized the lot next to his hammock. I probably would not have noticed it had I not stopped to take a photograph of the chair on the opposite side of the barbed wire perimeter. While framing, I saw it.

Combined with the chair, it evinces a certain dadaist air. As if the artist was inviting the observer to sit and ignore his work. Just as most people avoid looking at Jorge. I suspect out of fear that we may discover we are just as tormented.

But ignoring the work misses its power.

It riffs off of a traditional Catholic theme dear to the heart of most Mexicans -- the incarnation of Christ symbolized by plaster of Paris figurines. Or what we northerners call a nativity scene.

Our family had a nativity scene that we would drag from the basement in mid-December. Mary. Joseph. Baby Jesus. Shepherds. Three wise men. Donkey. Cow. Camel. Sheep. All huddled around a cardboard manger. Far more fantastical than scripturally factual. But designed to tell a universal truth.

The Mexican creche is a kissing cousin of its more-restrained and distant European relative. All of the usual suspects will be there. But they will often be joined by Hummel figures, toy soldiers, dogs, crocodiles, and the occasional dinosaur. After all, the idea is to convey the thought that all creation honored the birth of the Messiah whose birth was designed to reconcile a last world with God.

Jorge's version appears to be an amalgamation of the traditional and the postmodern with a bit of green politics thrown in for flavor.

His baby Jesus is not constrained by a manger. With his headband, he is Rambo come to set things right in the world. That Cinderella shoe tells us he is not going to be bound by any cisgender stereotypes. His liberation is for all.

Rambo Jesus has left his meek lambs on the other side of the rainbow bridge while he sallies forth with a far-more appropriate mascot -- a black jaguar. Evil will be put in its proper place. The virtue of recycling is celebrated by the plastic lids and bottles -- some relegated to paradise, others yet to be conquered.

It is quite a powerful work of art.

Now, is that what Jorge intended?

How do I know? How do we ascertain the intent of a tormented mind? Or is the piece designed to remind us that torment may be one of those universal human afflictions.

My interpretation above is, of course, a sardonic take on the critics Tom Wolfe skewered in The Painted Word. But there is some truth buried in that palaver.

Modernist artists may have abandoned "meaning" in their art. When the Belgian surrealist René Magritte was asked what was behind his paintings, he responded: "The wall."

But I still find Marcel Duchamp's observation to be persuasive: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Even Picasso, one of the champions of "l'art pour l'art" was sentimental enough to define the purpose of art as "washing the dust of daily life off our souls." Though, that sounds like something he would say to seduce one of his models.

I will confess that I took Jorge's invitation. I sat in the chair facing away from the postmodern creche and contemplated its elements. For one brief moment, I heard Rambo Jesus whisper in my ear: "You are being sucked into the logic of the mad."*

* -- I have been using that quotation for years -- thinking I had created it. But it is not mine. It is Robert Shaw's.

One of my favorite films is The Man in the Glass Booth. It had been years since I watched it. When I watched it again last month, there it was. Straight from Arthur Goldman's lips.

I highly recommend the film. Come to think of it, it reflects the theme of today's essay.

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