Friday, October 28, 2011

`Trying to Break Into an Electric Light Bulb'

A longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, Mary McCleary of Nacogdoches, has been named Texas Artist of the Year 2011 by Art League Houston. Her pictures are mysteries, as works of art ought to be, and simultaneously invite and elude efforts to pin them down and reduce them to “meaning.” But neither do they play the postmodern swindle of reveling in meaninglessness. The mystery starts with the medium, collage, manipulated in such a way as to simulate painting. She assembles them, McCleary says:

“…by attaching layer upon layer of materials such as paint, paper, rag board, foil, glitter, sticks, wire, mirrors, pencils, nails, glass, painted toothpicks, string, leather, lint, small plastic toys and other objects on heavy paper, much in the way a painter builds layer upon layer of paint on canvas.”

Her collages encourage us to read them the way we read Flannery O’Connor’s stories. They throw us into the middle of things, often mundane scenes – boys playing, a man painting a house – made fantastical and a little frightening. Her sense of irony is exuberant but fine-tuned. Nabokov said Gogol’s art “appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.” McCleary's work dwells in that Gogolian realm. She writes:

“Drawing my subject matter from history and literature, I like the irony of using materials that are often trivial, foolish, and temporal to express ideas of what is significant, timeless, and transcendent.”

Take the 2008 collage “Sugaring Moths.” We see what appears to be a specimen case holding dozens of moths from various genera. This would be an amateur’s collection, the sort I kept as a kid, not an entomologist’s. Prominent in the upper left is Hyalophora cecropia, the largest species in North America. The expression “sugaring moths” is not whimsical but refers to a method used to attract the largely nocturnal insects. Go here and here for recipes.

McCleary often includes texts in her collages, and these can be difficult to decrypt online. Mark Sprinkle, in a blog post at The BioLogos Forum, helps with the text to “Sugaring Moths.” As he notes, most of it consists of another moth-attracting recipe, but the final two lines are the most suggestive: “He set them in order. Gathering against the night.” Sprinkle’s gloss is thoughtful and sympathetic, and I won’t elaborate on it except to say McCleary’s collage reminds me of a “trivial, foolish, and temporal” poem by Don Marquis, creator of archy the cockroach and mehitabel the cat. In “the lesson of the moth,” archy speaks with a moth who is “trying to break into / an electric light bulb / and fry himself on the wires.” archy asks why he does this and the moth explains:

“it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty”

Archy can’t agree, “but at the same time i wish / there was something i wanted / as badly as he wanted to fry himself”

1 comment:

drizzz said...

I think you'd enjoy reading the brief essay entitled "Sugaring for Moths" by W. J. holland and found in his "The Moth Book". My copy is a 1968 Dover reprint of the 1903 edition. John Kieran enjoyed it enough to include most of it in his book "A Natural history of New York City". Thank you for a great blog, I read it every day.