Karen Shaffer and Charles Vess (curators), Ancient
Spirit, Modern Voice:
The Mythic Journeys Art Exhibition (Mythic Imagination Institute, 2004)
Last week I blurbed this catalog thusly: 'Now, where was I... ah, yes. If you aren't aware of it, there is a conference of truly mythic proportions taking place this summer. The first annual Mythic Journeys will bring together more than a hundred of the world's leading scholars, psychologists, educators, business leaders, artists, authors, filmmakers and performers for an unprecedented dialogue on the importance of storytelling in contemporary life from June 3-6, 2004, at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency Hotel. Sounds boring? Surely you jest! Among the folks there will be singer/songwriter Janis Ian, Robert Bly, James Flannery, Jane Yolen, Peter S. Beagle, Charles de Lint and Joyce Carol Oates -- to name but a few. 'Wait a minute', you ask, 'where are the artists?' They are here too -- Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, Terri Windling, and many, many more. What's really cool is that The Mythic Journeys Art Exhibition catalog, Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice, arrived here at Green Man this week. We will have a full review of this catalog, with a detailed look at all the artists.'
Now an exhibition catalog is akin to something which an archaeologist finds on a dig -- it's not the exhibition itself, but rather an artifact from that exhibition. It tells you something about what was, but it is not what was. It cannot hope to replace the experience of actually seeing the exhibition, but rather gives you a (hopefully) decent look at what the exhibition was. Now understand that I generally find that exhibition catalogs are dreadfully boring things as they consist of little but reproductions of the art along with captions saying what the the art is. ('This is a presumed late period de Vinci which might one of his Mona Lisa sketches, but who really knows for sure?') The best exhibition catalogs aren't really catalogs at all, but rather are substantially revised looks at the subject matter. A superb example of this was reviewed by Donna Bird: Wendy Kaplan's 'The Art that is Life': The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920 which is perhaps the best expanded exhibition catalog I've ever read. Good illustrations, illuminating text, and a well considered layout.
Mind you, that book runs to some four hundred pages while Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice weighs in at under fifty, so I do expect it to cover the artists comprising The Mythic Journeys Art Exhibition in deep detail. Now considering that Liath ó Laighin, Green Man Review's Archivist, says that most of the exhibition catalogs in our collection are mere 'flimsy attempts to get the art viewing crowd to open their purses up one more time', it wouldn't be hard for a talented team of curators, Karen Shaffer and Charles Vess, who are life partners too, to do a better than average job of explaining and designing a catalog.
Now we do have a conceptual problem. Unlike the pre-Raphaelite Movement where everyone can agree who was part of the movement and who was not, this is not so easy here. Like the conference it is an aspect of, Mythic Journeys, this exhibition is very much a reflection of Joseph Campbell (whose hundredth birthday is this year), a true Jungian at heart if ever there was one. Campbell believed in everyone defining their tribe. Really. Truly. Just consider this choice statement from him: ' I was watching a New Years Eve gig and it was clear to me how tribal it felt. Good communities are tribes. They have rituals and myths and those kinds of deeper realities that light up everyday reality and give it some substance. I felt like I was looking at a tribal ceremony, and I liked that.' Ok, that's cool. Like urban fantasy, the edges are amorphous enough that enough Dragons Breath XXX Stout could be consumed while debating what is and is not to make even Coyote very drunk, and we still wouldn't get anywhere. The artists here are either self-proclaimed members of this movement, i.e. Terri Windling and Charles Vess, or so archetypically mythic in the nature of what they create such as Alan Lee, that they must belong to this tribe.
Any tribe where the artist group includes Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, Terri Windling, Wendy Froud, Meînrad Craighead, Viggo Mortensen (!), and Roxanne Swentzell, to name but a few, is a tribe to take notice of. Despite my claim at the top of this review, I will not be looking at each of them in detail as there's not enough material here to do so. Each artist gets two pages, one with just images, one with a bio and images. Ever been to one of those summer festivals where there's too much to fully sample, but you tried anyway? You left far too many hours later exhausted but very satisfied, ears ringing from the music, wallet lighter from having bought more crafts than you needed, and stomach full of really good food. Well, I felt like this after reading Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice: there were a number of really cool artists I want to know more about.
No, not Viggo. He's is, errr, interesting, but there are much more interesting artists here. Roxanne Swentzell makes very cool, and a bit scary, sculptures of beings that look more than a bit as if the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca had been responsible for their creation. Given her residence in the desert Southwest, that might just be possible! And there's Gabriel Bien-Aimé, born a half century ago in the village of Croix des Bouquets, now known as the 'cradle of 20th century Haitian metal sculpture', whose art invokes the loas of that culture. Let's not forget Greg Spallenka whose art to my eye is a perfect expression of the post-modern tribalism that Campbell longed so strongly for it.
So what would our archaeologist from centuries hence think after reading this catalog? She'd likely have no idea, despite the excellent introduction by Ari Berk, what these artists have in common. I certainly don't. And I think perhaps that is the whole point. A tribe, and perhaps particularly an artistic tribe, should be as inclusive as is possible. From the Aboriginal artists of what is now (fifty thousand years after they got there) called Australia, to the 'created' fey of Charles Vess and Brian Froud, all of them are invoking the myth in life. It's definitely a cool tribe!
Go the Mythic Journeys Web site for information on how to purchase this catalog.