Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Visit to Lynda Frese’s Studio to Learn About La Femme Chauve-Souris (Batwoman)

Lynda Frese, La Femme Chauve-Souris (Batwoman), 2013, 11x14” pigment prints,
found postcards, egg tempera, metal foil on gesso board

"...Only good bourbon in a bar after could have made my visit to Lynda Frese’s studio more fun, but perhaps it was too early in the day for two old broads to be “drankin” at T-Boy’s Lounge..." (Visited Lynda Frese's studio to learn about the fascinating myth-based and metaphysical associations in the artist's collage painting La Femme Chauve-Souris - Batwoman, 2013, reaching back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age.)

My Visit to Lynda Frese’s Studio to Learn About La Femme Chauve-Souris (Batwoman)

Only good bourbon in a bar after could have made my visit to Lynda Frese’s studio more fun, but perhaps it was too early in the day for two old broads to be “drankin” at T-Boy’s Lounge.

Nevertheless, it was a fine moment, which happens when the discussion includes Romanesque architecture and ancient archaeological sites.  Dominating our conversation was Frese’s “La Femme Chauve-Souris (Batwoman),” a collage painting with found images, photographs, and egg tempura on panel.  The focal point of this artwork is a postcard depiction of a wood carving in Saint Bertrand de Comminges’ Renaissance-era choir stalls of a pocked-skin, winged “Bat” woman with a creature emerging from her crotch.  Deep in my gut I understood the decorative carving’s meaning veered beyond soothing orthodoxies to something more fundamental.

The church illustrated by the postcard, Saint Bertrand de Comminges, is a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral in the Haute Garonne region of the French Pyrenees.  I have, it turns out, ancestral ties to a town located not far from that church.  In 1876 my mother’s grandfather was born in Salies-du-Salat, 29 miles northeast of Saint Bertrand de Comminges.  From the Pyrenees, my ancestor immigrated to New Orleans, where two generations later, my mother was born.  It’s tempting to blame the cult of the saint for my ancestor bearing the saint’s name, Bertrand, then naming his New Orleans born son Bertrand, who named his son Bertrand, but it’s more likely the name was popular in the Pyrenees prior to the saint (d. 1126), and possibly links to the Gallo-Roman era.

Feeling somewhat related to the church’s Pyrenees congregation, I focused my attention on their Bat-woman.  How brilliantly her carver imagined her, skillfully rendering in “grotesque” fashion the figure’s scaly body, demon between her legs, and pointed claws, while achieving naturalistic contouring of torso, thighs, knees and calves.  I had to wonder if the same craftsman carved another eye-catching church decorative object, a monkey, hesitantly described by travel writers as “misbehaving” or “naughty.”  The monkey is shitting.

Carvings in Cloister of Cathedral
of St Bertrand de Comminges

What does Bat-woman mean?  The hussy was probably intended as a warning against carnality, church art was an indispensable tool for preaching to illiterate medieval congregations.  But an image this awe-inspiring is also a trigger to move us past delusion.  Since the Paleolithic, we have used mythology and mythological art to reconcile our psyches to the unimaginable reality of mortality and connected-ness to a vast universe.  Bat-woman comes from the part of our consciousness that entertains our personal and cosmic disposition.

During our talk Frese compared Bat-woman to another spread-legged mythic creature. “She seems related to the Irish sheela na gigs, which I saw in the Dublin museum, and on rural churches.  They hold themselves open, and the world is coming out!  I’ll never forget those powerful stone works.  So surprising in churches, the meeting of Christianity and paganism.”

Informative comparison.  Even if the most perverse of the squatting sheela na gigs or “female-grotesques” shock the pious into crossing themselves, evoking a saint, they are, like Bat-woman, devotional objects with vague origins in pre-Christian cults and practices.

I’ve seen comparably aberrant grotesques on Irish monastic architecture, a reptilian spread-legged creature on the verge of licking itself which decorates a high-relief pillar at Jerpoint Abbey’s Romanesque cloister, comes to mind.  I also observed a hag-like head carved into the façade of a church ruin in the Western part of Ireland the day Donnie and I demolished the rent car mirror on an impossibly narrow road while searching for the 3500 BC Neolithic portal tomb Poulnabrone Dolmen.  It’s tempting to think these oddities originated with the Celts, who built over the megalithic environment and whose arts' organic patterning and delicacy of line we find familiar and charming.  (Plato ranked these swaggerers first class drunks, and Julius Ceasar, Strabo too, called them savages because they fought naked and decapitated their enemies’ heads to decorate their homes.)

Celtic excursions however were comparatively recent.  The squatting harpies and stylized heads on Irish religious architecture are more deeply rooted.  It’s my opinion these devotional objects are derived from the art and mythology of the ancient and vibrant natives who participated in the sacred by elevating to divine status the first Irish “kings” through ritual mating with the Earth Goddess.  Precisely the folks who constructed the mind-blowing chamber tomb Newgrange (3200 BC) which is astronomically aligned to be illuminated once a year on Winter Solstice, for the annual merging of sun with chieftain burials to symbolize destruction, rebirth and renewal.  Newgrange is unquestionably a disorienting and magnificent site, its immense stones, precise sky measurements and focus on death announce the vigor of the Neolithic religion that inspired it.  Knocked me over.  To recover, Harp Lager or Guinness Stout, or a fine whiskey.  Don’t ask for ice.

“Batwoman’s” combined images reflect prehistoric man’s desire to harness the universe’s regenerative energy through ritualistic conjuring of hidden reality.  Near the Bat-woman postcard is Frese’s photograph of Bronze Age stone monuments on the island of Sardinia, ceremonial sites built by the water-worshipping Nuraghi, some of which are shaped like female sexual organs.  Between postcards of the arches and elaborately carved columns and capitals in Saint Bertrand de Comminges’ Romanesque cloister, is Frese’s photograph of Dordogne Valley Paleolithic cave art which represents ancient interaction with the other-world.

Lynda Frese at Bronze Age Santa
Caterina Sardinia. Image by Barb L. Allen

To more easily penetrate Batwoman’s mythical associations, I direct you to Frese’s book "Pacha Mama: earth realm," my copy arrived by mail a few months after her 2011 book-signing exhibition at Redbud Gallery in Houston, “For Virginia - Mucho Arte!”  In it, Frese expands on the mythical significance of sites and artifacts she photographed, writing for instance about the “sacred” cave art at Paleolithic Pech Merle where “the goddess themes of sexuality, abundance and birth are strong” and in which there are “fantastic shamanic creatures that are part woman, part pregnant beast, both painted on and inscribed into rock walls.”  Frese wrote that death is necessary for renewal, a vision inherent in that which she called “archetypal images of destruction and rebirth.”

If you find the cave’s hybrid pregnant beast or Bat-woman vulgar, laughable, it makes the point that mythologies are “haunting” in Frese’s words, and mythological motifs and artifacts can be unsettling, especially if arch-typically unfamiliar or mis-remembered.  Emblematic of this is the remarkable image that hangs in my kitchen of an 8000 year old terracotta sculpture of a goddess with excessively corpulent stomach, butt, and thighs, seated on a throne, giving birth, flanked by large lions, photographed by my friend Debbie Leflar when we visited the archaeological site of Catal Huyuk in southern Turkey, where she was excavated.  The sculpture was created about 5900 BC after her Neolithic culture changed from hunting to agriculture, and their mythology became centered on birth and regeneration symbolized by the goddess, making her the most sacred, most powerful thing in that psychic realm.  Once societal changes brought shifts in mythological narrative, she became unessential to the mind, and entered the unconscious, to potentially resurface in a foreign or debased form, perhaps as a foul demon who tries to have intercourse with men.  Saint Augustine warned about the depravity of demons.

I’m moved by the unsparing power of certain myth-based symbols.  Consider the snake-hair gorgon Medusa in the Palermo museum, carved along with Perseus on a 550 BC metope from Temple C at Selinus, with tusks and terrifying grin.  Perhaps Hesiod, I can’t remember, said Medusa is a child of Gaia who turns to stone those who gaze at her.  From the mind of Archaic-era Greeks came a startling allusion to the universe’s energy and life-death cycles.  In a similar vein are the Hindu deities Frese photographed in India.  I hang out with a sculpture of god Shiva in my yoga studio, extra arms and dancing feet, Shiva the Destroyer, Cosmic Dancer, who presides over the constant destruction and re-creation of the universe, inspires me to concentrate on energy that destroys my lower self, to allow evolution and growth.  Turn to Italy, Frese photographs there, her Virgin Mary iconography often combined with depictions of early goddess cultures and landscapes, are extraordinary.  A similar incarnation is Pontormo’s “Entombment” (1525-1528), a painting I saw in Florence but didn’t really “see” until my graduate school professor, Bernard Bonario, completely darkened his classroom, zero visibility, to project the slide.  Predictably students bitched, how could they write, but Bernard was unconcerned with note-taking at that moment, he wanted us to see, really see, the stylized elongated figures with tormented expressions, swirling in mysterious space, without cross or tomb, linear perspective abandoned, see especially the unnatural, breathtaking coloring by which Pontormo associated the Christ figure and lamenting figures with an unseen reality.  Oh, the immensity of it.

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