HUDSON, New York — Surrounded by Thomas Micchelli’s works in the John Davis Gallery yesterday, with my back to the gallery’s back wall, I became transfixed by two paintings that throbbed with a rich purple that glowed as if lit by the winter dusk.
Micchelli’s show of drawings and paintings, entitled Bacchantes and Bivalves, is a modest affair, though nearly all of it packs a punch. The Bacchantes paintings and drawings riff off The Bacchae, credited to Euripides, and are inspired by an adaptation of The Bacchae staged by the Performance Group Dionysus in 69 that was later documented in a book. The works function as documentation of an imagined script of some Maciunas performance — or are they the penciled and painted panels of a comic book script that’ll eventually transmogrify into a slim, knowing book?
Euripides is thought to have written his masterpiece tragedy in Macedonia when the city-state was undergoing the political and militaristic turn that allowed it to become the Empire that Phillip II and his son Alexander would one day inherit. The Bacchae is the story of the terrible revenge wrought on King Pentheus of Thebes by Dionysus, or Bacchus. The play, like the installed works, displays our dual behavior — we are all liars and truth-tellers, lovers and deniers of love, and ambivalent about both for reasons often unknown. Although Micchelli makes a point of saying that his work does not contain a direct reference to Euripides’ play or its adapted performance, the epic, the vivacious, and the tragic live on in the works on display. And, anyway, Euripides’ account has as much to do with the personal as it does with the political, and, nothing much is lost or gained by the connection.
The Bacchantes paintings are Color Field works composed with a Gauguin and Diebenkorn sensibility, wrought in impasto blues, browns, and rich ochres in oil and wax on intimately sized panels. The colors suggest overripe grapes, and ancient, now putrid wines. They also remind one of the purple robes of the Roman Imperium, and the tunics and coats of wastrel princes, except here the figures in the paintings are clothed in purple flesh. The Dionysian and the genocidal-imperial live as one.
As rich as the paintings are, this is really a show of very strong drawings. The Bacchantes drawings, in particular, dwell on the ambiguities of human actions, between pushing and pulling, bending and torturing, between aiding and fucking. Micchelli’s drawings invite the audience to map the facile Euripidean dichotomy between the rational Apollonian and the unhinged Dionysian onto some imagined diagram of the mad and cherubic Eros, and destructive and merciful Thanatos. The Dionysian act can be emancipatory; the Apollonian turn can be deadly, and vice versa. The drawings project the human as bound to the amorous, social, and political circumstances that define their acts, as well as the specific contexts within which those acts can be discharged. In Micchelli’s world no one set of actions is open to universalistic pronouncements: “walking” fails to map onto the world coherently when the actor is bound to the ground; to be bent over is an act of torture if one is never afforded the respite of standing.
A set of 16 Bacchantes drawings in the smaller, downstairs gallery teases out the tension inherent in physical, amorous, and social acts. Are the two Bacchante helping each other limp along, or is one sodomizing the other? Does he like it this way? Is this an act of mutual passion or dispassion? Desire consumes the human like a disease. And what of consent? The conceptual conceit of a dichotomized act manifests itself in the drawings: each drawing exhibits the pentimenti of other marks laid down and erased, and redone. Each Bacchante drawing is both the remainder of its own making, and the residue of paths already taken and then effaced.
The Bivalves drawings from 2011 point to the problematics of social and sexual consent and connection. The enigmatic series was inspired by a selection of writings by philosophers Gaston Bachelard and Jean Luc Nancy, among others. It’s a set of three works, each consisting of a two part pencil drawing on two sheets of rag paper, connected by line and shape at the seams, that offer the viewer homunculi looking for a way out into the world. Self-absorbed while still connected to another, they’d just as well step out of the gallery and on to the streets of Hudson, licking themselves to masturbatory abandon, than stay put where they are.
It’s a self-contained show set to boil over. But I wish there had been more paintings to see, so that the drawings might have had better camaraderie. Perhaps more paintings in the show might have better mapped out the ambiguous terrain that we’re now passing through, in both culture and politics. Our Imperium is failing its self-professed task of constructing a Pax-Americana, and I wouldn’t have minded observing more figures in purple presiding over the fate of another. That would have fit our current quandary perfectly.
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