How my friend’s art connects Hollywood and ancient Egypt

Last weekend, I took a trip up to Milan. My friends and I hit all the usual sightseeing spots — the big famous Gothic cathedral, the sprawling neoclassical shopping mall known as the Galleria — but I had one special destination in mind.

My friend, the painter Tracy Molis, had a gallery show there.

Two things made this show especially interesting to me.

First, Tracy does not live in Italy. She has never been to Milan. She works out of a studio in New York, and her paintings were so compelling to the owners of this Milan gallery that they transformed the entire space — where, again, she’d never even been — into a showcase for her work. I wanted to see what it was that had gotten the attention of these people, from the other side of an ocean.

Second, Tracy gets her paintings from ancient art. Ancient sculptures, mostly — Greek and Indian and Egyptian. She’s less interested in the mythologies behind these sculptures than in their textures — light and shadow, curve and crevasse; the way time wears on them, and the ways these bodies and faces can still jump out at you across the centuries.

And it’s that jumping-across-time — that folding of many times and places into a single moment — that forms the emotional core of Tracy’s work.

That folding of time — that sharing of emotional space with people from the distant past — is one of my favorite themes; it’s exactly the theme I’ve written about in this article, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. I was interested to see what Tracy’s take on it would be.

Before we go any further, I should be clear about the fact that I’m not an art critic. I know next to nothing about visual art — but I did once cry while staring into the eyes of a Van Gogh portrait, so I think that at least qualifies me to say something about the emotional connection — or lack thereof — that I feel with a piece of art.

I also wrote this piece about how artists in just about every culture throughout history have painted some equivalent of “selfies,” and people seemed to like that article a lot, so I think that qualifies me to try my hand at art-related writing again.

Plus, Tracy told me this:

“I think contemporary art wants to be engaged with contemporary life and “non-art” subjects/ topics, so it’ll be great to hear the angle that broadens it out to our actual, lived, contemporary lives.”

And “broading history out to contemporary life” is pretty much what I do. So here we go.

 

This is where the gallery is. It’s a little gated courtyard off a side street, in the middle of a block of apartment buildings. The only sign is a tiny one next to the doorbell. Luckily, Tracy had given me the address.

I rang the doorbell, got a surprised answer, and got buzzed in to the courtyard.

There, I explained to a very surprised — and very kind — Italian woman that I was fairly sure this was where my friend’s show was. My friend from the United States. Was this her gallery, and was she showing an exhibit of an American artist?

“Oh, you know Tracy?” she asked, still very surprised.

“Yes, she’s my friend,” I said.

The woman invited me in.

The space was clearly built to be a one-bedroom apartment. But the doors had been taken off, the fixtures taken out, the walls painted white, and gallery lighting installed.

My host — who was the only other person there — handed me a printed sheet, with the names of all the pieces, along with Tracy’s artist statement.

The show was called “Hollywood Forever at 3.00 AM.”

Hollwood Forever is the name of a cemetery in Los Angeles, where a lot of famous and rich people are buried under ornate headstones.

The artist statement said things like,

10 PM Mountain of tributes on Michael Jackson’s star
Fast car, Billie Jean, white shoes
Crowds, surrounding Highland
Mourning dancers rising
Summer air

I don’t “get” modern art, generally.

If I go to a museum and there’s a sign saying, “All these paintings are from the 16th century, commissioned by the Medici family, depicting famous scenes from the Bible and Classical mythology,” and then that’s what the paintings are, and the light and shadow and flesh and trees are all very well painted, and the compositions are pleasing to the eye — that, I get. I once spent three days wandering through the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, spending at least five minutes staring at each individual painting, analyzing every aspect.

But another time I went to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and a bunch of the pieces were oddly shaped blocks of wood, or sometimes just trash glued to a wall, and the artist statements said things like, “The futility of the capitalist lifestyle,” and I walked out. I walked out of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, a my passionate artist friend of mine following behind me, trying to explain to me why this art was really good and important, shaking his head at my unrefinement. That was about the last time I gave contemporary art a shot.

I don’t like feeling like a caveman. I don’t think anyone does.

I felt stupid for thinking the art was stupid.

But that’s what I thought. I couldn’t help it.

I have painter friends here in Florence. I think they’re very good painters. They paint in a classical style, but each with their own twists on it— blocky modern shapes inserted into the compositions, Dali-esque scenes of everything melting together.

Painting by Raul Campos, a friend of mine here in Florence

I understand those ideas. You can look at my friends’ paintings and feel the emotion in them — their desire to master the old and experiment with it; to push it in new directions.

Sometimes I ask those friends about artist statements. All of them say essentially the same thing: “Just make up some poetic bullshit at the last minute. Who cares. The paintings are the point. People will see what they want to see in your work. If they like your paintings, they’ll think your artist statement is profound. If they don’t like your paintings, they’ll think your artist statement is stupid.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it.”

All this to say: When I took my first look around Tracy’s gallery show, and read her artist statement, my guts began to fill with a dread that I was probably not going to “get” this show.

I would do my best, of course. I would take lots of photos, and post them on social media, so Tracy and other people would see that I actually went to Milan to see her show; that I supported her as a friend, and was proud that she’d gotten this gallery all to herself from across an ocean; which meant that, clearly, these people must find her work very compelling; like my friend at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art had found the pieces of trash glued to a wall compelling.

I, however, was afraid that I might not find this art compelling, despite my best efforts to accomplish this. I would walk slowly around the room and study each painting carefully, and stroke my chin and make “hmm” and “ahh” noises, and nod my head, and tell myself I was getting something out of this — and of course, post proudly about it on social media —

But I was probably going to feel like a caveman again.

All this before I even really looked at the paintings.

This was the first painting I looked at. It’s called Woman Riding Sea Serpent II. Acrylic on canvas. 92 x 117 cm — about the size of a large plasma-screen TV. You can’t see the woman’s face, but the creature she’s riding looks like a combination of an Egyptian sphinx and a capricornus — half goat and half fish.

A capricornus is a very interesting creature.

The Sumerians chose it to represent the spirit of the Abzu — the abyss; the primeval ocean from which all life and creativity sprang at the dawn of time; the numinous Deep where all humanity’s gods and terrors dwell. The capricornus was also an avatar (or maybe a symbol) of the Sumerian god Enki — “Lord Earth” — god of creativity, intelligence, crafts, fertility, magic and mischief.

Enki isn’t a patriarchal father god. He’s a sort of hacker-trickster god — known for hiding away in his cloaked underwater base, keeping tabs on what all the other gods are doing, then popping up at just the right moment to gain some advantage.

Shades of the hedge-fund manager, too.

Enki is a collector and leverager of inside information; developer and guardian of the mes, the fundamental principles of civilization; inventor and teacher of writing; spreader of memes and thought-viruses — including beneficial thought-viruses like “civilization.” The Sumerians loved Enki so much that they dedicated a constellation to him: the one we call Capricorn, whose zodiac sign is still associated with ambition and resourcefulness, six thousand years later.

The sculptor of the original piece — the one Tracy was reinterpreting here — had chosen to combine a capricornus with the head of a sphinx, another infamous and ancient trickster (remember the Riddle of the Sphinx?). On the back of this hybrid creature rode a woman, face obscured.

What jumped out at me, though, were the light and shadow.

I felt I was starting to get a sense of what Tracy meant when she talked about “Hollywood Forever at 3:00 a.m.” Hollywood — not the Hollywood Forever cemetery, but the area of Hollywood itself — is packed to bursting with sculptures that combine ancient Greek and Egyptian and Mesopotamian art in all kinds of chaotic ways, usually without much regard at all for the original themes or meanings of those pieces. Walk through Hollywood on any given night, and you can see these monuments shining under fluorescent lights — cold, impersonal, yet frighteningly intense and confrontational.

Take, for example, the Assyrian bas-reliefs on the towers of the Hollywood and Highland mall:

Why is this sculpture here, at the center of a shopping mall, in the middle of Hollywood?

Apparently the mall’s architect wanted to pay homage to the “Babylon” segment of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance —a film that portrays the horrors of human slavery throughout the ages.

In other words, these Assyrian sculptures aren’t here because Los Angelans feel any connection to ancient Babylon — or even because they find ancient Babylon impressive. These sculptures are here because someone in Hollywood once made a film about ancient Babylon, and Los Angelans found that film very impressive.

The Los Angelans built a monument not to ancient Babylon, but to a film about ancient Babylon.

This is the religion of Hollywood.

Tracy’s next painting, Cleopatra (acrylic on panel, 61 x 77 cm.) brings this point home even more clearly. As far as I know, there’s no outdoor sculpture of Cleopatra’s face in Los Angeles — but the intensity of the gaze, and the shadows cast by the underlighting, reminded me immediately of those towering underlit statues that the Academy — what an occult-sounding name that is — sets up for the Oscars every year:

This statue seems to stare off into the middle distance; you are beneath its notice. “I am Perfection,” it seems to intone, clutching its sword. “I guard Perfection.”

“You, a mortal, will never be accepted here.”

I also couldn’t help being reminded of another statue of “Perfection” — the “Younger Memnon” statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, which once towered over the ancient city of Thebes —

But finally collapsed after thousands of years of exposure to the elements, and lay in the desert sand for centuries, a mute, dead-eyed monument to the fact that Time eventually beats us all:

Engraving by David Roberts, ca. 1816

It was this statue that inspired Percy Shelley — famous poet and husband of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — to write his sonnet “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

What a perfect description of Hollywood! As Tracy’s artist statement says, “L.A. is wardrobe. L.A. is vampire. L.A. is law.”

I honestly have no idea what Tracy was aiming for with this painting, or if I came even remotely close to it — but that was the cluster of images and thoughts that sprang to mind as soon as I looked at it: “I am perfection. I am terror. You do not deserve my gaze.”

“And in my perfection, I am already dead.”

History is littered with statues like this one. As a long-time resident of Los Angeles, I can tell you that many of those statues live there even now, each of them claiming to be alive, vibrant and forever young.

This painting, called Recursive Lions (acrylic on panel, 61 x 77 cm.), immediately made me think of the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka — which, given the similarity, I’m pretty sure must be the direct inspiration:

This sculpture — the whole city of Sarnath, really — has a very unusual story behind it. The city is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northeast India — fairly close to the Taj Mahal.

Sarnath has been a sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhist monks since at least the 100s BCE, if not earlier — and before that, it was the capital of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who decreed (among many other things) that prisoners were to be treated humanely, animals were not to be harmed unless absolutely necessary, free medical facilities were to be available for anyone who needed them, trees and public gardens were to be planted throughout the empire, leaders of major religions were to gather at his court and debate rationally and politely, and public servants were to walk through all districts of the cities —

Checking on how the poor were being treated by the rich, and whether everyone had a reasonable standard of living.

Ashoka had these edicts engraved on pillars with lions on top — like the one above — and installed at important sites throughout his empire.

All this in the 250s BCE — before the Roman empire.

Not surprising, then, that Ashoka was revered not only in his own time, but is still beloved by Buddhists — and all sorts of nice people — around the world today; especially in his native India, where he’s seen as a sort of George Washington figure.

But despite the warmth and humanity that one feels from Ashoka himself, even 2,200 years later, the lion sculptures themselves have been criticized by art historians for their “rather cold, hieratic style” —oddly reminiscent of sculpture from ancient Persia or Egypt, which would’ve definitely been known to the well-traveled merchants and scholars of Ashoka’s empire.

That’s why I think it’s interesting that Tracy chose this particular sculpture — out of all the thousands of sculptures from all the thousands of years of Indian history — to complement her head of Cleopatra and her sphinx-headed capricornus; to complete her theme of Undying Hollywood —a cemetery of the living.

Innovative yet cold; youthful yet dead; celebratory yet mournful; populist yet exclusive; hierarchical yet anarchic —

Brilliantly lit in ways that cast shadows all the more darkly.

Were these themes the ones Tracy was trying to evoke? Am I even close? I had — and still have — no idea.

All I know is that when I stood close to the canvases, under the narrow beams of the gallery’s lights, staring at Tracy’s thick layers of acrylic paint, built up in blacks and whites and grays until it almost took the form of flattened bas-relief, composing these stern underlit scluptures that seem to stare out past the viewer, into some space only they can see — watching for perfection, maybe; embodying it; guarding it; informing you that you are not it by the very fact that they refuse to so much as look at you — that was what I felt.

I felt like I was back in Hollywood again, at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night.

Watching the beautiful people pouring out of the clubs, onto the sidewalks; the girls in tight tube dresses with high heels dangling from their hands, shuffling barefoot as they drape their arms around the necks of thickly muscled actor boys in flannel shirts and designer selvage jeans; all under the sweeping spotlights that tell of more parties in the distance — no, keep going! there is always more! — and as you walk past these people they look not at you but through you, looking only for a reflection of themselves in your eyes — or maybe just too drunk and focused on taking the girls home to do much interacting — all of them seeming to stare off into the middle distance, tonight having transmuted the question that echoes at all hours, day and night, in their minds — “Am I beautiful?” — into an almost furious assurance: “Yes. I am.”

This isn’t to say I dislike these people, for that.

There’s something honest about Hollywood at 3 a.m.; a sense of seeing everyone naked — naked in soul; naked in their delirious relief that tonight The Question has been answered, at least for now. The terrified howl becomes a shout of defiance; of imminent victory. It says, “What is tomorrow? Right now is all there is; all there ever will be. We are the Cool Kids. We are the Gods. We won’t ever stop, or die, or get old or tired or boring. Look upon the towers we’ve hurled to the heavens. Behold the fire and water that dance at our command. The war is over. We win.”

This — or something very like it — must be what Ramesses and Cleopatra and Ashoka all believed.

They knew that people worship images of Perfection, so — giving up something of their humanity, their vulnerability, their warmth — they became Perfection, forever. Well, for a while, anyway.

And as the bedraggled couples shuffle out onto Hollywood Blvd. in the pre-dawn glow of 3 a.m., you can see in their faces that they believe this. Really believe it.

In this strange in-between place, we all know, for tonight, that it’s true.

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