Monday, February 23, 2009

After Eros: Derek Cracco's Visions of Love

After Eros

Shepherds, I say; but they call themselves the good and the just! Shepherds, I say; but they call themselves believers in the true faith. Behold, the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker; yet he is the creator.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

If there were to be a single element that positioned humankind, might be the ability to act hypocritically. For it is this ability that allows individuals to hate while they speak of love, or to defile while they pretend to revere.

I begin here because when Derek Cracco speaks of Love he does so in a complex, myriad way. He understands the word love has many meanings. He draws inspiration from its many dictionary definitions, but predominantly from the notions of love as the “fatherly concern of God for humankind” and the “personal adoration of man for God.” He does so, in part, as an attempt to highlight both the disparity and the hypocrisy that result from the application of these two ideals. For in Cracco’s world, we all have both the ability and the potential to be hypocrites. Whether it is conservative Christian radio speaking of Hurricane Katrina as being the punishment for the sins of a Sodom and Gomorrah New Orleans, or it is the individual who makes use of a prostitute’s calling card, in each action there is this element of hypocrisy, of denial and of separation. So Cracco takes the urges, desires, and drives that are subsumed within our conceptions of love - basically taking the totality of Freud’s drives – and melds them into visual images that both hide and highlight these impulses at precisely the same time.

One might begin with a triptych depicting, in part, a satellite image of Hurricane Katrina created entirely with vinyl layers, similar to a topographical map, with grey color-shifting hearts on the pieces above and below. Entitled, ironically, God’s Love We Deliver, the work mocks the audacity of conservative commentators who were audacious enough to insinuate a relationship between divinity and disaster. At precisely the same moment, the title references a seminal food distribution program in New York City that assists people living with HIV/AIDS. Countering the suggestion that Southern Decadence, a gay pride festival in New Orleans, was the straw that broke God’s back, Cracco ponders the possibility of reconciling this assertion with the belief that God does, according to the definition of love, have a stated, fatherly concern for humankind.

Perhaps Cracco’s uses of everyday and found materials suggest a desire to make this discourse universal. Apart from the obscured pages of porn magazines, there are the tattered remnants of romance novels, prism tape, prayer cards, prostitute calling cards, fragments of arrows and sign-making vinyl. More often than not, it is the juxtaposition of these seemingly mundane materials that creates an uneasy tension. In Marksman, Mother, Shot, for example, we see first the inverse image of a gun (a pornography unto itself, particularly if you wonder Glock? Or Beretta?). To its right is a rather straightforward image of the Virgin Mary, culled photographically from a cemetery near the artist’s mother’s house. Finally, we encounter a heart, complete with a fragmented arrow protruding from its surface. On first seeing it, and thinking of the work’s title, all I could hear was the voice of John Bon Jovi: “Shot through the heart/and you’re to blame/you give love/a bad name.”

Perhaps Cracco is giving love a bad name indeed. At the least, he’s giving it a bad rap, to the extent that he’s challenging fatherly and motherly love, as they are, to step from behind the guise of unconditionality, and into the gaze of contemporary culture.

In Between the Sheets, we encounter a range of sexually suggestive images culled from the pages of popular adult magazines. In each instance of anticipated exposure, Cracco has covered the models’ bodies with hearts. Using a perspectival technique, he has arranged the hearts to give the perception of three-dimensionality. Yet when I look at the works, it is almost only possible to see scales. What he hopes will convey love seems, unexpectedly, to suggest original sin. He further clouds the issues of individual versus universal love by obsessively painting out the flesh of other subjects who appear throughout the work. Time and again, their flesh is obscured, effectively removing the signifiers of self. Perhaps Cracco is reflecting on the idea of self-effacement, of the process of making oneself inconspicuous. At the same time, he has described to me the ways in which this covering process becomes “a ritual, a cleansing, a whitewash” through which he is able to remove the “edges” of the offenses and, arguably, make them acceptable. In a sense, the mere sublimation of desire is part of this equation, and Cracco brings both the love and the desire to the forefront. What seems unique is the propensity to allow the definition to slip so that slowly, over the course of the exhibition, notions of fatherly compassion give way to expressions of almost unhealthy desire. It is as if the expectation “God loves me” gives way to the expression “I love…” In We Love, we see a series of images generated by the artist’s request that people send him images of things that they love. Overwhelmingly, it seems, his audience has responded with “We love porn!”, but we also see expressions of love for alternative lifestyles, family pets and other objects of affection.

Time and again Cracco challenges viewers to reflect upon their obsessions with Eros and Thanatos, or, love and death. This conflict can be seen in the uneasy sexualization of Saint Sebastian, who has transformed into an icon of twenty-first century gay culture, or in the expressions, both visual and verbal, for acting upon desire. One might step further, and ponder the notion of orgasm, sign of life, which the French refer to as “le petit morte”, the small death. At the same time, he also acknowledges the throwaway nature of contemporary society. In a culture marked by twenty four hour information streaming and direct marketing, mainstream religions are as much a part of the process as others marketing products. The tracts and leaflets extolling the dangers of sin become like the coupons discarded everyday – glanced at briefly, avoided where possible, and having very little likelihood of resulting in the spiritual catharsis of faith that they are supposed to induce.

Yet Love is also a series of works positioned as much by intellectualism as by emotion. By critically interrogating Joseph Campbell, particularly his interpretations of James Joyce, Cracco has constructed a visual paradigm for art that challenges notions of “proper” and “improper” art. One might recall that, for Joyce, art was either pornographic (it inspired desire) or it was didactic (it instills fear or loathing). Proper art, he suggested, was work that caused the viewer to be held in a state of aesthetic arrest, causing the images and ideas of the day to decimate clouded thinking and provide a singular moment of pure experience. One might argue that this notion of the unclouded experience was as much a modernist construct as could be expected from Joyce, but the larger questions of propriety or impropriety, or sacred and profane, are obviously relevant. One might also wonder how Joyce’s works themselves would be classified, with his textually pornographic works so offensive to conservative America that Ulysses was the subject of a sixteen-year battle before being widely available.

It is the ongoing struggle to reconcile faith and freedom, and the inevitable dictum that Christianity is synonymous with charity that Cracco examines so closely. Time and again, irreconcilable differences emerge between professions of faith and expressions of love. In Porn and Propaganda, one encounters a series of vinyl-cut guns collaged over a series of religious flyers, leaflets or tracts. Cracco suggests that there is no ability to distinguish between propaganda and proselytizing, and that there is an inherent tension between the two. Visually, his use of recurring images – the sheep, the gun, the Virgin Mother – all serve to establish a recognizable lexicon of iconography that serves to short-circuit the need to verbally deconstruct his arguments and assertions. Yet each work asserts something far more complex than Mother equals purity, or guns equal religion, or sheep equate to sexual innocence. Consider, for example, We Are All Sheep in His Eyes. One might think here, too, of the assertion that Christ was the lamb sacrificed by God, and compare this outcome to Abraham, who offered up his son Isaac as a sacrifice that was spared, and for whom a ram was substituted. Each of Cracco’s icons always already asks questions surrounding what it means to internalize, process and represent complex spiritual questions in comprehensible, personal ways.

Finally, one must acknowledge that Love is a series that is positioned as much by iconoclasm as it is by cynicism. Cracco is neither a proselytizer nor an idolater, meaning that his motivation is neither the acceptance nor the rejection of the symbols he explores and, in many senses exposes. It is the ongoing understanding that, on a personal level, one may love a person, or a thing, as much or more as they love God, or life itself. More significantly, he understands the implications of hypocrisy, from the statements regarding Katrina that are outlined above to the blind acceptance of pronouncements that seem to position humans as being capable of living outside free will.

I am reminded of a song by the late Jim Croce, entitled “Which Way Are You Going,” where he sings:

Which way are you going, and which side will you be on?
Will you stand and watch while the seeds of hate are sown?
Will you stand with those who say let his will be done?
One hand on the bible, and one hand on the gun.
One hand on the bible, and one hand on the gun.

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