“…The images are shocking, witty and mordent.”
The Chico Enterprise-Record
“There are a few artists in the show who are primarily committed to printmaking. David Avery, for example, created a series of small, Neo-Gothic style illustrations for Grimms’ fairy tales that are crammed with magical details rendered in eye-straining miniaturism.”
From “Politically Charged Prints Cause Talking in the Library”, Ken Johnson, New York Times, Dec 4, 2007
God’s Food or Der singende Knochen
by DeWitt Cheng
Connoisseur of the picturesque and recherché? Devotee of the rare and exquisite? Curiosa fashion victim? If you have a sweet tooth for symbolism and surrealism, and a weakness for Brueghel, Ensor, Chirico, Magritte and the other sly fabulists of Old Europe, then David Avery’s enchanted prints at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery, a veritable Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Marvels) of meticulously executed magic realism, will restore your soul.
The series, God’s Food or Der singende Knochen, takes its title from one of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, those preservationists of German folklore, and each of the eight images comprising the series is the artist’s imaginative response —improvisation revised and refined— to the title of a story selected by a friend.
"I found these [titles] to be marvelously evocative and suggestive. Who could resist the imaginative provocations of such titles as The Singing Bone, One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes, and The Glass Coffin, not to mention one of my favorites, The Straw, the Coal and the Bean? … The imagination could spin its own tales."
The titles sufficing, Avery chose not to read the stories, and his unfettered imagination has spun its own strange tales, enigmatic and visually compelling, generating multiple interpretations. While the fairy-tale source material and motifs—bones, quill pens, disembodied hands and eyes, serpents, flowers—suggest narratives to the engaged viewer, or even symbolic or allegorical readings, no single interpretation prevails. These images demand narrative but also defy it. The allusive clues that we are given are partial truths, which never lead to definitive interpretations or airtight CSI-style forensic reconstructions; they never quite reveal their mysteries. The first image in the series, God’s Food or Der singende Knochen, opens the cabinet of marvels, revealing treasures—a decapod spider made of a pair of hands, disembodied peacock’s-tail eyes, burning hands, a fluttering, sublimating book—from a lost magical realm: think of the enchanted castle in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, with its helpful human appurtenances. (Fans of Edward Gorey may discern a hidden bonus tribute in this piece as well.) Der Bauer und der Teufel (The Peasant and the Devil) similarly eludes analysis: a smiling peasant, half-buried in a field amid crows and scarecrows, holds up a gourd or fruit from which a small horned skeleton emerges, while disembodied hands, winged lights and a spermatic airborne earthworm fill the portentous sky. In Die Boten des Todes (Death’s Messengers), a horde of winged hands grasps or stacks branches or sticks, while a radiance in the sky burns off the fog, revealing cast-off insect wings on the ground.
The frustration of tantalized logic is amply compensated for, however, by the visual feast set out for the imagination. The Austrian visionary artist Alfred Kubin spoke of “the universal life that mysteriously intermingles in men, animals, and plants, in every atom, in every created or uncreated thing.” Avery’s images similarly conjure up a teeming, magical, panpsychic world of beauty, mystery and metamorphosis, with “mind-stuff” pulsing through people, animals and objects, all dancing in a secret conspiracy (etymologically, a breathing together) of existence. Sometimes this irrepressible vitalism takes on a sinister cast, with objects quickening to life, dumb and blind like sprouts from tubers*, as in Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion fantasy films. Die weisse und die schwarze Braut (The White Bride & The Black One), is an image of completely convincing (if baffling) symbolism, with its veiled bridal egg, dark, chthonic serpent, exploding flowers, and ambiguous windblown landscape implying dangerous secret lore — perhaps conjugal? In other images we find a bawdy, slightly grotesque sexual humor** reminiscent of medieval illuminators, Bosch, Crumb, and Freudians dating back to prehistory. In Des Herrn und des Teufels Getier (The Lord’s Animals and the Devil’s), we join a gaggle of animal-headed humans crowded around a circular picture or mirror or window —it’s ambiguous—, scrutinizing the activities of human-headed animals in poses of erotic abandon. It’s funny, but also disturbing, and recognizing the allusions to Brueghel (the luxuriantly tressed butterfly) and Munch (the sperms at the rim of the picture, drawn irresistibly inward***) does not quite restore us to our full status and confidence as God’s primate of choice and instrument of the divine will.
Certain species of fish migrate up and down the water column daily, governed by fluctuations in light and temperature. Birds migrate yearly across whole continents and oceans. People waver every day almost moment to moment between reality and fantasy, logic and imagination. In politics today we suffer seemingly from a lack of logic and a superfluity of rhetoric, but the real problem is a paucity of imagination governing our behavior. Dualities, like the Taoist male and female principles, require an admixture of the opposite element. The best, most creative thought and work, like Avery’s carefully worked out lucid dreams, use logic and imagination to enrich each other and present a microcosm of our swarming planet and our human condition, torn between fear and hope, necessity and desire.
Copyright DeWitt Cheng 2005
*The deadly dodder is a parasitic plant that behaves like an animal. Having abandoned roots and leaves for scales, it “advances toward its host-prey …like a very slow snake with fangs in its “stomach” instead of in its “head.” When the dodder sprouts from the ground, its tendril-like stem seems to sniff and listen for a few hours, then somehow sensing the presence of its victim (probably through the light-sensitive cells…), it turns its tip and
grows rapidly toward it — and often, by the end of the second day, has coiled itself firmly around it and started
sinking its rootlike fangs (called haustoria) straight through the cambium layer into the sap channels.”
— from Guy Murchie’s The Seven Mysteries of Life, p. 370)
** On seeing Ensor’s comical and risqué drawing The Baths at Ostend, King Leopold II, the scourge of the
Congo, commented, “Monsieur Ensor has done the subject very well; he has not exaggerated, this is exactly how one bathes in Ostend. The sea and bathing so sometimes hold pleasant surprises in store for us.”
— from Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s Ensor, p. 55
*** Sperms swarming an egg seeking unio mystica (mystical union) are hilariously parodied in John Barth’s story,
“ Night-Sea Journey.”
We seem to live in an age where words, images and objects have been looted of meaning. So I have come to think of the etchings I make as being miniature Rorschachs, acting upon the experiences and senses of both the careful viewer and the artist. The associations and perceptions thus provoked belong to the viewer, and override any preconceived intentions I may have had. However, the tonalities and depth that can be achieved with the medium of black and white etching can be made to heighten the viewer’s perceptual receptivity, awakening unforeseen and unlikely associations. Where do my ideas come from? The same place as everyone else’s—the brain. Or more precisely, the interaction between experience and imagination that takes place within the brain. In pursuing a perhaps excessively detailed image, I am using an almost hyper reality to work towards an inward goal, rather than trying to make an inner vision tangible. Even a simple nursery rhyme, once you start picking at it, can reveal layer upon layer of associations and further meanings. And so, I find myself both consciously and unconsciously striving towards images receptive to being endowed with meaning, able to release a capacity for wonder.