Friday, 24 May 2013

Painting the Gods of Mexico

Artistically speaking, I've always been drawn to work which defines and is in turn described by its own unique semiotic language, art which seems to inhabit its own distinct interpretation of the universe running parallel to that occupied by the rest of us; paintings and images which in declaring a divergent view of consensus reality may sometimes appear quite extreme. Here I refer to a philosophical process which leads one to an alternate view of the world as much as to the associated imagery, regardless of whether the philosophy in question is compatible with one's own beliefs, because it's always good to step back and take a look from a different angle.

This is initially what drew me to the Italian Futurist painters, and particularly to Fortunato Depero - one of the lesser-known second wave members of an expanding group whose reputation - despite a recent resurgence of interest and reevaluation - remains somewhat tarnished through varying degrees of association with Italian fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. Depero, for what it may be worth, was at least not a fascist by our contemporary understanding of the term, and certainly not enough for such unfortunate brainfartery to taint his art or diminish its power:

Fortunato Depero - Il ciclista attraversa la città (1945)

I discovered the work of Depero in the early 1980s when my mother would take me to Warwick University - at which she was then a student - leaving me to wander around its library in search of obscure books by William Burroughs or pertaining to my developing interest in painting. The library had a copy of the notorious Depero Futurista, a facsimile of the 1927 edition bound with two huge metal bolts in the spine, which obviously proved irresistible; and the art of Depero came as a revelation to me - bright, funny, childish, brash, excitable, and yet somehow uncompromising. For whatever reason, I felt I had an immediate and intuitive understanding of what the artist - and in this instance quite an unconventional artist - had been trying to do, and this was what inspired me to take up painting in earnest, at least beyond the level of the customary pictures of skulls and space rockets I'd churned out at school. Happily I discovered that the skill of a Velasquez or a Titian were not essential for the production of my own Depero inspired efforts, and so I managed to scrape my way through art college without developing any conventional representational drawing ability, or skill as it is sometimes termed by fussy traditionalists.

Semi-Sex Act (1985)

Having always felt somewhat rootless in certain respects, as though I never really belonged to any one place, I believe that many of my artistic endeavours have represented attempts to define a personal psychological territory, to build myself a private universe or at least a set of references amounting to the same. Quite aside from anything else, this possibly relates to why I've moved around so much during the last thirty or so years, up and down the length of the British Isles before ending up here in Texas, somewhat like Alan Moore's Halo Jones pacing the galaxy, trying to get out I told myself during my more
pompous moments of introspection.

Event One (1986)

the 1980s drew to an end, my pseudo-Futurist style began to expand and evolve - at least within the limits of my admittedly narrow ability - incorporating aspects of Surrealism, Dada collage, and the iconography of ancient Egypt. I'd spent a few months reading up on the ancient Gods and Goddesses and found the mythology fascinating, it having been very much its own distinct version of the universe running parallel to that occupied by the rest of us, as I saw it. I had a vague notion of these symbols and hieroglyphs rendered as part of a living system, as opposed to mere copies of something that had died thousands of years before - an idea of the symbols as having some inherent quality beyond the subjective understanding of a viewer. Immersing myself in this work, I felt I was conducting something akin to a thought experiment, although I probably wouldn't have been able to express it as such at the time. In hope of articulating something that lacked coherent intellectual content, I was trying to understand a theological environment from the inside, roughly speaking, to see if this was possible without pulling the wool over my own eyes through effrontery to either common sense or the laws of physics. Having said that, I'm not sure why I was quite so picky considering all the other crap I used to fall for hook, line and sinker. But as the next decade rolled in and I slipped sideways into cartooning, my urge to paint burned itself out. All those mythologies mashed together had made for interesting pictures, but it hadn't really gone anywhere.

Some time in 1994,
intrigued by a title which sounded to me like that of an unreleased Nurse With Wound album, I picked up a book by Kate Orman called The Left-Handed Hummingbird. It was science-fiction, A Doctor Who novel set in pre-Hispanic Mexico which instilled in me an emergent fascination with Aztec culture. Within the week I had raided the local library in search of further material. It was the first time since the Futurists that something had taken such a profound hold on my imagination. It seemed like a lot of loose strands had all converged at once, and I had found something which at least resembled a sense of purpose - that for which I had apparently been searching without even realising it. I was no longer pacing the galaxy, trying to get out. My interest in ancient Egyptian lore had turned out to be only another passing indulgence, but - regardless of how much of a berk I will seem in making such an admission - Mesoamerica made perfect intuitive sense, and on some level it spoke to me. It was a language I could appreciate as language, even if the precise meanings were not always immediately clear, and it seemed by some definition alive.

I threw myself into reading up on the subject, for the first time in my life really getting into the details of a subject; and the more I read, the more my fascination grew, until I'd reached the point at which I was beginning to notice contradictions, and even to consider that I in my arrogance might have better interpretations for certain aspects of the mythology. I began to take notes, to set down thoughts and observations, encouraged when my own independently deduced interpretations of certain aspects of the mythology were borne out by further reading with surprising frequency. 

Ultimately of course I realised that there is only so much to be learned from the material available in your regular bookshop, particularly when you've either bought everything you can find and borrowed the rest from the local library. So, coming at the subject from a slightly different angle, I took up painting once more. I'd built up a goodly head of obsessive steam and needed to get it out. With hindsight I would consider this as being something along the lines of intuitive research, an effort to think in Mesoamerican terms and which you could probably justifiably call ritual if you felt so inclined.

Having failed to reincarnate as Fortunato Depero five or six years earlier, I'd tried and failed to make a living as an underground cartoonist in the vein of Robert Crumb or Bill Griffiths, which had at least taught me how much I had yet to learn about representational art. My figures were terrible, which probably wasn't too surprising as I'd steered clear of life drawing classes at art college, unable to imagine myself in the same room as a naked person without exploding with embarrassment. Nevertheless, I began to labour away at a few of these new Mesoamerican themed paintings depicting individual Gods and mythological figures, but soon realised I had fallen into the old trap of running before I could walk, aiming no higher than something which just looked kind of cool but lacked substance, and I had limited myself through avoiding the depiction of any visual element which might betray my obvious lack of skill; so aside from anything else, I also had to learn to actually paint.

I started again, stepping up the reading and writing to an exhaustive level, setting down page upon page of notes and observations before approaching my canvas. Through this process it became apparent that in order to remain true to the subject I would need to attempt to paint at least partially in the language of that subject - a perspective from the inside looking out rather than yet another predictable Western take on feathered Gods as either demons of pulp horror or new-age gurus. Not having been born in fifteenth century Tenochtitlan, I realised it might seem dishonest to pretend that I had, or that perspective was somehow beneath me; and with an aesthetic grounded in Futurism and cartoon strips it seemed I might be best to start off from what I knew whilst striving to elevate my art beyond these origins, to raise it towards something approaching the religious paintings of previous centuries. It seemed unlikely that I would ever rival the work of Delacroix, I told myself, but it didn't seem like there was any harm in trying; and aspiring towards the art of subject rather than the knowing postmodern object, it at least felt good to distance myself from any present day obsession with contemporaneity.

Ultimately, I began to conceive each piece as though it were a map, with each part of the painting carrying a specific potential according to the symbolic import of each of the five cardinal points of the Nahua universe - thus East (at the foot of the image) tends to refer to origination; North (the right) to death, cold, and inertia; West (the top) to fertility; and South (left) to penitence and sacrifice, with subtle variations upon these themes as the subject demands. The great majority of my Mexican paintings therefore adhere to an aesthetic built upon a roughly consistent framework of symbols and pictograms running through most of the various series, even if it is not always directly expressed. The entire Nahua-Mexica mythology is founded upon the metaphysics of balance and symmetry, and so I have striven to use this as a foundation upon which to build these images. I like images which oblige the viewer to work towards an understanding, paintings which reward those who make the effort to figure them out.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird (1997)

Accordant with this emphasis on symmetry, my first cycle of work comprised 104 paintings in total - 52 male Deities and 52 female Deities, both 52 and 104 being multiples of 13 and thus ritually significant in Nahua lore. This cycle was ostensibly produced for a mammoth volume of text comprising both paintings and pages of my notes turned into essays with most of the bum jokes taken out. At the time of writing, I'm still not too sure about how this will develop or whether I will ever complete the undertaking. A great number of newer versions of individual paintings were produced after I'd finishing the initial cycle, due to my realising that some of the earlier efforts looked shite or were otherwise rendered symbolically redundant by my improving artistic ability and increased understanding of the subject. So I have a feeling this may ultimately be one of those hopefully great works which, like the painting of the Forth Bridge, will never achieve completion, but I guess we'll see.

The process of producing these paintings has felt very much like a prolonged act of defining something, of calling something into existence, bringing it back to the world; and yes, I am aware of how that sounds. Nevertheless, I prefer science and physics to a world of wood goblins and spirit guides, but for reasons to which I will return I find little in Mesoamerican culture to contradict the empirically established foundations of our universe. Irrespective of whether or not I am depicting - or even calling back - something that is real, the ideas themselves are real and that for me is the crucial detail. Additionally, the process of painting was in itself at least as important as the result, simply as a point of focus. When working on a specific image for nine or ten hours, particularly one laden with symbols, you tend to get a lot of thinking done, and so each piece might even be deemed the result of a prolonged meditation - if you'll pardon the associations.

I will conclude by attempting to illustrate some of this cognitive process with a brief discussion incorporating some of the ideas developed during the course of painting, with specific reference to the Gods Xipe Totec and Itztapal Totec.

To clarify just who I'm talking about here, the term Aztec is obviously the most widely understood, and is thus generally used in discussion of a wide range of peoples encompassing the Mexica, Acolhua, Tecpanecs, Culhua and many others, all speaking variants of Nahuatl and sharing numerous cultural traits and beliefs; although it is also perhaps a little misleading. The Aztecs were the ancestral tribe who mythically left their island home somewhere in the north of Mexico some two hundred years prior to the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan. Shortly after embarking upon this great migration - delineated in Codex Boturini amongst other sources - the group adopted the name Mexica, reputedly after Mexi Chalchiuhtlatonac, a tribal leader - although other accounts give a different origin to the name. After many years of nomadic life, high spirited battles and generally enthusiastic acts of good natured violence, the Mexica settled in the Valley of Mexico and forged dynastic ties with the Culhua of Culhuacan on the western shore of the great lake, shortly afterwards founding Tenochtitlan upon the largest island of the lake. Therefore from at least 1325 onwards they would have referred to themselves either as the Tenochca after their city, Mexica, or Culhua-Mexica.

By 1325 the term Aztec was only used in an historical context, and in an historical context exclusive to the Mexica. A Tecpanec or an Acolhua person would therefore be no more an Aztec than I myself am Celtic. Aztec as a generic reference was first popularised in W.H. Prescott's mammoth two volume The Conquest of Mexico published in 1843. Prescott's book wasn't the first narrative end-to-end account of the conquest, although it was possibly the first to be read by a wide audience, and it employed the term Aztec in order to avoid the confusion of Mexica with Mexicans in the wider post-Conquest sense of nationality. As a general term, I prefer Nahua which at least refers to the language spoken by all of those concerned.

The Nahua held to a belief in matter as having inherent qualities which could be discerned in its behaviour and properties, qualities such as strength, weakness, warmth, cold, even a tendency to stick to other objects. In illustration of this last example, one passage of the
Codex Florentino records how the Nahua considered it unwise to eat a tortilla which had stuck to the hot stone during cooking for the reason that one might become infected by this sticky quality, and hence find oneself similarly stuck in some sense. A better known example might be the period of five Nemontemi days occurring at the end of the solar year. These five days fell outside of the regular festival calendar (12th through 16th March Julian time) and were distinguished by the suspension of activities for the duration. Each person strove to do as little as possible for fear of any activity which might allow for the occurrence of any mishap or accident. If one stumbled and fell during Nemontemi, it was believed that one had been infected with the character of the accident quality and would thus continue to stumble and fall throughout the coming year.

So keeping in mind that we have inherent forces, abstractions which influence the interaction of base substance, and as such seem reminiscent of certain ideas surrounding Plato's ideal forms - perfect spiritual templates which prescribe the form and properties of physical matter - for which I coined the term ixihtec in my novel Against Nature - let's move on.

Having studied the broader subject of Nahua-Mexica culture until it's coming out of my ears, it has struck me as likely that what we mean by God, and what the Nahua-Mexica meant by God may be two entirely different concepts. From a western perspective, the image of spear chucking types jumping up and down in front of an idol that would have made Picasso wince presents the lazy assumption of belief in something real by the same terms as belief in the reality of the chair on which I am presently sat, some strange superbeing perched upon a cloud with a frown and one ear cocked towards the prayers of the devoted. Whilst this assumption might not necessarily be untrue of every single individual living in a pre-technological society, the Mesoamerican example appears to contain numerous Deities who can be more properly compared to the inherent forces described above, inherent forces which have been historically described in anthropomorphic terms simply because this was the language by which such ideas were discussed rather than any literal statement of substance.

Nahua supernaturals tend to be portrayed as discreet self-contained individuals only depending upon the context of the account. Quetzalcoatl, for example, is a human ruler of the city of Tollan in one tale, although at the close of that particular legend he ascends into the heavens as Tlahuixcalpantecuhtli the God of the Morning Star. In another tale, the same Tlahuixcalpantecuhtli is pierced with arrows fired from the sun which effect his transformation into Itzlacoliuhqui, the Frost God. At this point of the theological arc we find something very curious, for in turn Itzlacoliuhqui is elsewhere identified as an aspect of Tezcatlipoca - the Fate God and thematic opposite of Quetzalcoatl - a transformation analogous to that of Christ into his own infernal counterpart. Surviving codices are similarly rife with Deities presented as having characteristics which more commonly identify other, often quite different supernatural figures, even to the extent of changes in gender. It therefore seems possible that in the instances described, Nahua Deities are used for the purpose of illustration, different concepts juxtaposed in order to forge some third meaning lacking in the individual components. Their fluidity is pronounced, sometimes with little to distinguish related Deities from one another, sometimes with different aspects of the same Deity each having qualities that seem incompatible with the other; none of which does much for the idea of this pantheon as a group of superbeings neatly lined up on a cloud like an archaic version of the Justice League of America.

The Flayed God (1996)

Xipe Totec (Our Lord, The Flayed One) presents a particularly vivid illustration of this conception of Gods as ideas personified as Deities. Xipe Totec is a maize God, one of a group comprising the Centeotl cluster, and as such he personifies the ripening corn just as others represent said corn at earlier stages of development. During the yearly Tlacaxipehualiztli festival, Xipe Totec's devotees would be sewn into the flayed skins of their sacrificial victims and go begging for alms. They would remain encased head to ankle within these grisly hides for twenty days - forty by some accounts - by which time the skins would have rotted away or else fallen apart through wear and tear, thus revealing the living and presumably somewhat aromatic person inside. This is in essence a symbolic re-enactment of the corn husk drying out and coming away to reveal the ripe cob within. Taking the allegory a stage further, it may also be viewed as a fairly explicit illustration of the cyclical nature of life and death, or even - if you'll pardon my flippancy - no pain, no gain.

The function of Xipe Totec therefore seems to be the summation of this idea, or perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that Xipe Totec is the idea; and once we have the idea, do we really need to argue the reality of a disembodied supernatural intelligence working behind the scenes, or might that not be missing the entire point? One is not required to believe in ghosts in order to understand that Xipe Totec is real in so much as the idea of Xipe Totec - as a bundle of concepts regarding the cycle of life and death - is real. So if this assertion is valid, a God in Nahua-Mexica terms might just as well be viewed as an inherent force written large, even a law of the universe in terms of human experience.

A lesser known member of the pantheon is Itztapal Totec (Our Lord, The Stone Slab), generally regarded as an aspect of Xipe Totec, although arguably with enough distinct qualities to distinguish him as having at least a degree of autonomy. Xipe Totec, when mentioned in those short-on-detail Big Bird's Book of Mythology affairs usually gets one sentence amounting to Fertility God of Ripened Corn and patron Deity of Metallurgists. Given what I've written about Xipe, the metallurgy aspect may appear somewhat arbitrary as it initially did to me when I first came to consider this figure, and so I will attempt to elaborate.

Xipe Totec was alternately known as Yopi, and as such was honoured at dedicated temple in the main square of Tenochtitlan, the Yopico temple - meaning Place of Yopi - which was famously used as a repository for the captive idols of foreign Deities, in other words those of conquered peoples. The element of foreign Deities may be significant here for Xipe Totec himself appears to be an imported form of an earlier God of western Mexico, a Deity of the Tlappanecs whom the Mexica regarded as nomadic savages with little in the way of culture. Further to this, and returning to the subject of metallurgy, Tenochtitlan was a great importer of goods from neighbouring tribes and city-states, not only tools and precious objects, but also Gods, various crafts, and those who practiced them. Tenochtitlan itself was not renowned for its own metallurgical practice and seemed to prefer to bring in specialists from amongst its neighbours. There was, for example, a Mixtec ghetto in Tenochtitlan where migrants from coastal Oaxaca forged many of the more spectacular gold objects with which Hernán Cortés later supplemented his income. The Mixtecs innovated or were at least famed for the lost wax method of casting which produced small and beautifully intricate objects of the kind that would eventually help make Erich von Däniken rich. Other metalworking techniques found in the Mexica capitol bear comparison to those of western Mexico, beyond even the Tlappanec territories.

So we have an imported corn God and imported metalworking practices, both originated from the same general direction. There would seem to be an association there at least in terms of geography, but perhaps we can take this a stage further.

Our Lord, The Stone Slab (2001)

The name Itztapal Totec translates as Our Lord, the Stone Slab. Which stone slab, you might quite rightly ask. Given the the God's patronage of metalwork and the fact of not absolutely every aspect of Mesoamerican symbolism being about human sacrifice, I'm ruling out the stone slab as sacrificial altar for the sake of argument and looking to the stone upon which one might beat metal - copper or gold thinned to workable sheets, such as those from which much surviving Mesoamerican jewellery is formed.

At this point it seems relevant to return to the theme of inherent qualities of matter as dictated by incorporeal forces or essences, for the two Totecs may be viewed as essentially the same idea expressed in different media. Xipe embodies the corn husk, the template which is stripped away to reveals its
perfectly formed fruit. Itztapal Totec may therefore represent the husk analogue in the metallurgical counterpart, itself a similarly generative process and the culmination of work upon a substance likewise born from the soil.

So there, for what it may be worth, are some associative observations regarding two particular Deities who might initially seem to have little in common, and whose relationship had struck me as a bit of a non-sequitur prior to my focusing upon the issue during the research and execution of the painting. Furthermore, there are another hundred or so Deities to whom I have given similar consideration by similar means, and several fat binders full of the accompanying notes. It is my intention that one day I will have all of this work assembled in a more coherent form, but for the time being I am content to have gone through the process, and to have learned that the process turned out to be of significance at least as great as that of the destination.

This essay constitutes an extensive revision of material previously posted on the Ishtar's Gate message board back in February 2009.

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