Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bird Watching in Scott Ketcham's Art

"Blue Departure"
So already, a few days ago, when I asked my husband, Scott Ketcham, if he liked the painting he had been working on all day, he said he did. "Take a picture of it on your smartphone so I can see it," I said. The newly finished painting I got to see is the one you're seeing to the right. Scott's been even busier than usual in the last few weeks because Open Studios are less than two weeks away.* 

Recently, Scott's been giving titles to his paintings on the advice of the man who designed his new web site, <>. Scott, who has generally had no interest in naming his paintings, has taken to creating titles as a marketing necessity. When asked about his title choices, he explains that his sole intent is to give the viewer a foothold in his work without usurping any of his/her right to see and interpret as s/he sees fit. He also admits it's never bad for a prospective collector to be able to refer to the painting in which s/he's interested by its name.

But though the titles he's assigning mean very little to Scott, they are meaningful to me. I'm endlessly curious--and baffled--by the source from which Scott's vision and imagination spring--or maybe I should say climb, or rise, or erupt, or limp, because all of these words seem apt for some painting or other. So his titles, not completely arbitrary despite Scott's casual attitude toward them, provide me with some clues. Take "Blue Departure" above: to my eye, a man, a woman, and a giant bird seem entangled, not departing--and "entangled" always connotes tension and struggle. Are they struggling to free themselves from being forged and frozen, or is it inescapable Dionysian frenzy from which they seek liberation? ? But wait--the the face of the female figure defies either interpretation: I see a benign smile on her face--as if she's in the midst of a sleeping or waking dream. And so I'm left to accept that the painting itself somehow reconciles struggle and peace. But I really don't know how and why it does that. 

For a while, Scott's work has sent me wandering the literary and mythological backwaters of my education, formal and informal. It happens in flashes: 
  • a conviction that I need to reread Louise Glück's poem collection Averno because I'm wondering how Persephone's semi-annual passage between the underworld and upper world, between death and life, connects to what Scott's expressing; 
  • an urge to research the significance of the phoenix, to weigh in my own mind the counter-forces of destruction and rebirth; 
  • a desire to immerse myself both in the William Blake poems populated by Zoas and emanations, and in Jewish writings about the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of G-d that makes so many ardent Jewish monotheists uncomfortable.
  • a resolution to revisit The Subtle Knife, the second book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy in which the protagonist has a special knife that permits him to slice his way through both spirit and matter into other worlds--and that must be used with the utmost care.
My Persephone hunt led to Wikipedia, which explained the significance of Lake Avernus, and thus Averno:
Avernus was of major importance to the Romans, who considered it to be the entrance to Hades. It gained its name from the Greek word αορνος (originally αϝορνος) meaning "birdless", referring to the belief that birds flying over the lake would drop dead from the poisonous fumes that it emitted. The name Avernus was often used by Roman writers as a synonym for the underworld.**
A portal to the underworld with the power to kill birds? Given the significant role birds often play in Greek prophecy, what did the birdlessness of this important place signify?

In Averno, I came upon "Persephone the Wanderer," in which Glück says,
They say 
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong entirely to life. Earth

asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as  suggestion--
as we have seen 
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read

as an argument between the mother and the lover--
the daughter is just meat. 
In Scott's paintings in which the male and the female sometimes blend, sometimes mate and bear, sometimes make the abstract and conceptual palpable and visible, the rift that Glück identifies is everywhere manifest and hardly pretty.

And then there's the question of the relationship between this boundary-straddling soul and the perception and pursuit of beauty.  In "October," the long poem just before "Persephone the Wanderer," she asserts, 
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
I believe that Scott goes everyday into his study looking, trying to restore that beauty, seeking it inside and outside of us all. I suspect he spends little to no time assessing his competence "to restore it." Somehow it calls to him, elusive but real, and he responds to its call, pursuing it, eschewing doubts and distractions as best he can, and looking to find it and render it--the truthful beauty that must reflect the "rift in the human soul/ which was not constructed to belong entirely to the earth." As if that's all he can do.

Which brings us back to "Blue Departure." Are the two human figures lovers, or male and female aspects of "something" separating or uniting, creating or destroying? Is the bird, having mastered them, fading and depleted? Which one or two have birthed the other(s)? Should we be thinking of them as a trinity, and toward what end? But that's just it: there doesn't seem to an end: the three seem linked eternally. But where are they?

"The Gold is Within"
So many questions --and also so many  Scott Ketcham paintings that include or suggest birds in their content. Even as I sit at my dining room table writing this post, I'm looking at the painting you see on the left, entitled "The Ancient Inside."  Here the bird is inside of a figure who's probably female--but perhaps not. This painting represents an instance when the title Scott gave the painting helped me to interpret, or to begin to: does that bird inspire or lift up, or does it burden, control, overmaster the figure whose feelings remain mysterious to us? And does "Ancient" mean very old in the sense of antiquated, or of eternal? I think the latter. "The Gold Within," a later painting to the above right, suggests by its name that this inner "being"--here detectable as a human face--is positive and welcome. I'm intrigued by the feathery, wing-like quality of the figure's right side. The title provides another hint and potential puzzle: "Gold" and "God" are just one letter apart. Is that inner gold the divine spark that Jewish and other religious thought places within each one of us, or is it a more personalized essential self?

"Blue Annunciation"
"Bird Call"
And there are other bird paintings from earlier years. Does the figure in "Blue Annunciation" announce herself, or is she the Gabriel figure who comes to announce another's message? And in "Bird Call," is the figure calling the birds, or being called upon by them? Despite the birds' swirling flight and their shadowy translucence that recalls the murderous birds in Hitchcock's "The Birds," the flgure appears calm, deferential, and engaged--a partner in whatever is transpiring.

"Landed Like Icarus"
I was already thinking of Icarus when I came upon a painting on Scott's web site that I didn't remember ever having seen before. "Landed LIke Icarus" captures the violence of Icarus' plunge. Were Scott's painting literal, Icarus would have been depicted without wings because the sun would have melted the wax that held them fast. But Scott's Icarus remains winged--and now that I look closely at it again, I begin to wonder if this is in fact a painting of a dead bird that has simply reminded Scott of Icarus. In all the years I've been with Scott, he's often photographed dead animals we've come upon in natural settings. (Doesn't everybody?)  Regardless of how human his subject is in this painting, Scott has blended the human and avian and suggested that efforts to soar and to fly are always fraught with risk. Death is brutal and beautiful here: feathered yet final, intense yet soft. And birds must fly: that's what they do.

Thoughts of Icarus led me to thoughts of Daedalus--first, Icarus' father who designed the labyrinth on Crete, and then James Joyce's protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The girl in one of Stephen Dedalus' well-known epiphanies is distinctly birdlike: 
 "A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. . . .
     . . .
    -- Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy. (pg 171-172)**
"Profane joy"--I feel that in much of what Scott paints. But I also feel sacred joy. And in addition to that, something far darker, something far more elusive, both threatening and comforting, that refuses to recuse itself, even when joy, sacred or profane, reveals itself and dominates.

"Soaring While Earthbound"
Last year, there was a metamorphosis in form in Scott's work: the inner bird became the container for the figure, ultimately spawning the figure, perhaps the emerging artist, who sometimes had his/her own wings, even if he/she hadn't yet spread them. Always, always, struggle accompanied this emergence: not so much a sudden "young man artist" Stephen Dedalus-style epiphany, but a hard-won product of tormented exertion willingly embraced. Passion. Apotheosis requires no less, and neither does a world crying for profound beauty and its potentially transformative effects on the human spirit. 

But since birth and death are often companions, we must be prepared for destruction, too. In Hermann Hesse's Demian, the title character embraces the god Abraxas, in reference to whom he shares the following with the novel's narrator: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas.”****

Reading Demian made Scott curious about Abraxas, a god, considered Egyptian in origin by some, in whom were combined spiritual opposites often embodied in different gods or beings in other traditions.***** "The Birth of Abraxas," the largest painting in this photo of Scott's Johnson State College winter 2014 exhibition, was one result of this fascination.  Interestingly, though, there is neither an egg nor a bird to be seen: just two distinctly human figures.

"Sulfuric Getaway"
While the human form dominates in much of his recent work, Scott hasn't stopped painting birds. "Sulfuric Getaway," which I shared in another blog post, balances the human and bird figures (which may actually be separate aspects of a single figure) and suggests that the bird has been sacrificed in the process of birthing the man whose "sulfuric" quality raises its own set of questions. And "Blue Departure" stays on my mind with its tripartite ring of figures. In the word "Departure," I hear more than an announcement of the new: I hear the active setting forth of a newly realized self that has meaningfully integrated the "ancient inside" with important, not ancient aspects of the self.

Still, the act of setting forth doesn't ensure progress. Vague boundaries appear everywhere in these paintings: between death and life, birth and death, male and female, mother and child, man and woman, human and avian, inner and outer, above and below, here and beyond, dark and light, intensity and release, struggle and peace, physical and spiritual. Perceiving where they are, let alone crossing them, is difficult. That's why Persephone, that expert boundary-crosser who is swallowed up annually by what's beyond and below, stays on my mind. Her coming and going literally destroy and restore the world. Among the animals symbolically associated with Persphone: talking birds.******

I don't know where Scott's work is headed, but I feel it moving, sometimes slouching towards Bethlehem, sometimes stretching upward though still much tethered, sometimes soaring. So I intend to keep up my bird watching and bird wondering. And if these paintings intrigue you, please head down to Scott's Open Studios on November 22 or November 23.

* This flyer contains all the information about Scott's Open Studios:

*** Hermann Hesse, Demian: Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend <>  
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1 comment:

  1. Feeling the call of November, I'm looking forward to seeing this open studio show of Scott's new work. Happy trails through Singapore and Malaysia!