THE GREAT WORK
Black Madonna: The Great Work
Exhibition Catalog Essay
Lisa Paul Streitfeld
The “fallen woman” is a common occurrence in western religious tradition, yet the descending female figure has barely been examined throughout the history of art. The uproar Frida Kahlo caused in the 20th century with her erotically charged The Suicide of Dorothy Hale revealed the complex dynamism surrounding this archetype that keeps it out of mainstream dialectic —whether in art or our corporate controlled celebrity obsessed culture.
Black Madonna seeks to remedy this imbalance by holding the tension of the long repressed polarity of Venus – as personified in the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the self-declared Queen of Heaven and Earth. The pentagram has long been associated with the love planet due to its perfectly symmetrical orbit, and this exhibition remakes the symbol from the Christian projection of the devil (lust) to the more ancient figure of Lucifer, the light bearer. This holistic consciousness illuminates the hundred works in this exhibition expressing what is newly emerging in art: the authentic face of the feminine denied by western religion yet embodied in matter through the Great Work of alchemists.
In the legend of the Black Madonna, the Holy Grail (Sangraal) is Mary Magdalene, who carried the bloodline of Jesus to southern France through her womb. The original Grail story of Perceval was written in the Court of Champagne, a cousin and sponsor of Hugues de Payens, co-founder and original Grand Master of the Knights Templars who was related to St. Bernard de Clairvaux, who translated the “sacred geometry of King Solomon’s masons and wrote the Oath of the Knights Templar which venerated Mary Magdalene. (1) While this religious/military order was protecting the pilgrims to the Holy Land and retrieving the treasures hidden within the temple mount, the underground mystery stream bubbled to the surface through the sacred practice of the Cathars in the Languedoc, where Mary Magdalene is traditionally honored as la Dompna del Aquae (“Mistress of the Waters”). (2) Within the confines of secretly held ceremonies, the songs of the troubadours transmitted the collective desire to unite with the Lost Bride through daily acts of chivalry.
If it had been recognized, a messianic lineage carried by the Black Madonna would have subverted the Church doctrine of a celibate Jesus. The Grail mythology was associated with the Merovingian dynasty. Yet had it prevailed, this holy bloodline would have become a direct threat to the Vatican’s imposed tradition in which the subjugation of women was enshrined. Yet, the knowledge of sacred geometry and symbols believed to have been extracted by the Templars from the Ark of the Covenant was imbedded in the very foundation of the gothic cathedrals by guilds of masons such as the “Children of Solomon.” (3)
This is how the tradition of “holy intercourse” took root in the cathedral of Chartres, built on the sacred site where the Druids worshipped the Mother Goddess. In the crypt of this structure is the icon of the Black Virgin about to give birth. This was a symbol of renewal exposed by the Merovingian bloodline that sought to restore the Lost Bride to Christianity. (4) Yet, hopes were dashed when the Cathars were exterminated in 1209. The bloodline fled to protection in Scotland, where the Grail secrets remain guarded in the Rosslyn Chapel awaiting the unveiling for the Age of Aquarius. (5)
Mark Wiener’s singular work, Still Life in Red (2009), encapsulates a quarter century of collective upwelling of the divine feminine in the face of continued subjugation. The red X was the secret esoteric symbol of the heretical church. (6) Today, it represents the erotic repression — academia, on one hand, and the corporate media, on the other. As an early Christian symbol, the X stood for the integration of chalice and blade through the merging of the upper (masculine) and lower (feminine) triangles making up the Seal of Solomon. Black Madonna seeks to transform the X symbol from its current association with repression to the pleasure of “holy intercourse” which entered the gospels as the Song of Songs, which were originally derived from the rites of the Sacred Marriage (hieros gamos) in ancient Sumer. (7)
The artist began The Black Madonna Series with a series of nude photographs in 1982, just as the ancient mystery tradition bubbled to the surface in the renaissance known as the New Age movement. Paradoxically, the rise of feminists in the academy choked the authentic pursuit of pleasure expressed in early feminist art. The void was filled by the manufactured idols of the celebrity entertainment culture. It was as if American institutions conspired to repress the emerging underground stream – and the authentic erotic dynamism between masculine and feminine in its wake!
Dove Bradshaw’s elegantly understated Positive Negative is a new vision of the Black Madonna with a crown of thorns radiating the dualities of the feminine that the exhibition seeks to reconcile. In all her known representations, the Black Madonna does not have Negroid characteristics. Like the Virgin Mary, she is pregnant; yet, unlike the mother of Jesus, she is black and just about to give birth. In history, this representation was the shadow of a patriarchal religion that turned Mary Magdalene from the “sacred marriage” partner of Jesus into prostitute.
As “Scarlet Woman,” Magdalene is pictured in red clothing or with red hair. Yet, her face has been lost to history. Fittingly, in the only artwork made for the exhibition, Wiener’s partner Linda DiGusta reveals her own highly expressive face in Self-Portrait with Five Fruits as a dynamic integration of opposites. In keeping with the sacred geometry of the five points of the pentagram, the duality of the work incorporates the New and Full Moon, as well as the ancient Venus as Sky Goddess (symbolized by the red feather) in her Morning (Lucifer) and Evening Star phases.
What does this face look like in the collective consciousness? Black Madonna seeks to answer this question. At the same time, it intends to place this discovery process firmly within the context of the freedom of early feminist art that was so playful in its eroticism and sincere in its devotion to the Beloved.
Black Madonna seeks to upturn conventions by exploring the authentic feminine power through the dynamism of opposites seeking unity through the masculine counterpart. Selma Karaca, the ingenious Turkish creator of wearable art, reveals this very process of transformation in her kundalini couture – a spiraling upward energy of the serpent that transmutes the energy from the lower chakras to the higher.
Wiener’s process with female form defies the extreme swings between objective and non-objective styles of 20th century art to hold the tension of a new aesthetic in which inner and outer states converge. The focal point of the exhibition is the artist’s collaboration with H.P. Garcia, Pentagram: Venus Revisited. This wall painting manifests a new cosmology through the embedded symbols of holism (the Seal of Solomon) and transmutation (the uncoiling serpent).
The exhibition opens with artists exploring the pop icon whose defiance of the repression regarding her namesake propelled her to worldwide fame. Yuliya Lanina reconstructs dolls into engaging underworld figures delivering a strong dose of humor exhibited by the early Madonna. This Russian artist’s happily interracial Primadona is the exhibition greeter; with her interchange of black and white limbs, she is the outer expression of a post-consumer archetype incorporating light and shadow, conscious and unconscious.
In Madonna Confessions, performer Karen Bernard struggles to ingest the idea of the Black Madonna in her head while letting her body respond to the energizing beat of the pop star’s early hits. The video excerpts from this highly engaging live performance reveal the human effects of the pop star’s kundalini-charged declaration of emancipation for the long repressed archetype.
D. Dominick Lombardi’s gargoyles alert the viewer into the crisis of the female figure within an increasing toxic environment. Twister and Dancer with Tumor furtively depict the lament of Heide Hatry’s animated Mary: “You don’t understand!” This admonishment is our entry into a matrix reviving the Great Round of birth/death/rebirth within the quaternity (four fixed signs of the zodiac) that need be inwardly balanced to obtain self-mastery. Surely, we don’t understand what is taking place in the collective unconscious and that is why we need artists — to reveal the consciousness of a new order! What is uncanny is how much Mary sums up the condition of women in the media today through the Angelina Jolie imitator who appropriated movie star’s image blending Madonna and Whore through plastic surgery. By implanting herself with eight eggs, this wannabe star immortalized herself as the “Octomom,” a dark reflecting mirror of the moral decay embedded in the craving of a media saturated age. That this animated pigskin bust anticipated a cultural watershed giving rise to a new archetype of holism is testimony to the power of art – not only to reflect the present but guide our way into the future.
Hatry’s Madonna is an acute likeness of the pop star through an innovative blend of literature and visual art stemming from this multimedia German artist’s signature material: pigskin. The diptych sums up the convergence between postmodernism in art and cultural decay within the framework of celebrity penchant for facial reconstruction masking soul vacancy as a prelude to mass projection of self-autonomy in the technological age. This view of the rock star as surgically enhanced “everywoman” is accompanied by the biting literary portrait of Lydia Millet’s Sexing the Pheasant, which satirizes the inherent contradictions of an icon encapsulating two thousand years of patriarchy in a public search for love that only reveals how degenerate is the capitalist craving to fill the fathomless void of a soulless culture.
Within the matrix of the cross, Madonna as the hyper-creative self encounters the other three conditions of the feminine. Joel Simpson’s contrasting female bodies incorporate the Earth Goddess of Taurus. Carolee Schneemann’s Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions 1963 establishes the Great Round through the Scorpio serpent symbolizing death and rebirth. This iconic performance can be newly interpreted in conjunction with the German artist Iris Schieferstein’s I can be who I want as long as I know, 2008, a declaration of the artists’ right to self-mythologize into a post-patriarchal Sky Goddess infused with consciousness of the written word. Danielle St. Laurent’s iconic portrait of Andres Serrano represents Aquarius, the human filter of the collective consciousness. Serrano is photographed sitting in Oracle, which stands in the large gallery before Pentagram: Venus Revisited. This interactive sculpture by Janet Rutkowski and Walter Kenul integrates the Crescent Moon with the Aquarian Venus through the marriage of the self-defining outer core (Saturn) guarding the boundless universality of the interior spirit (Uranus). The oval seat is a Mandorla of Heaven and Earth integrating cosmos and the human body. Here the artist who did the most to humanize Jesus with his infamous Piss Christ is mythologized as the Unicorn in the lap of the Goddess through his Oracle experience: “The chair makes me feel like I’m taking a trip to the moon, but it’s very peaceful…” Indeed, Serrano’s presence in Black Madonna through Oracle is an apt resting place for an artist who did so much to bring down the false beliefs of Christianity!
Electric energy in the body, known to gurus as the kundalini, is the charisma powering the heated competition for fame in a capitalist culture. When missing a masculine consort, the primordial power can be deadly, sending one to madness. Susan Weinreich experienced this on her schizophrenic descent and return from the underworld, in which she literally lost her head, as interpreted through Self Portrait. The overload of sexual energy pictured by Shadow Portrait spawned an overripe sexuality that had to be completely reconfigured in the context of Hermaphrodite, the dynamism surrounding the constellation of the hieros gamos. The failure of the collective to absorb the power of this new archetype spawns the insidious ambition of the celebrity infotainment culture to replace art as a cultural currency.
As the central “strange attractor in the exhibition, Richard Humann’s Electric Bumper Cars sculpture depicts the struggle of arrival. The geometry cast by the shadows of these twelve death chairs reveals the limits of the ego in containing the kundalini energy, creating a star studded arena in which pop star posturing supersede artists authentically connecting with the millennial shift of archetypes. With the symbolism of the pentagram as entry point to this jostling for fame within a star worshipping culture, this satirical sculpture reveals the deadly electrical surcharge that is the AC current without its DC companion.
It wasn’t meant to come to this. In the early seventies, a new holistic Venus embracing light and dark emerged as pure sensual devotion in the feminist art of Kate Millett. Through a unique interchange between the literary and the visual, this pioneer enacted the mythical descent of Inanna expressed in Crazy and Waiting. Her subsequent identification into an authentically liberated woman who embodies the life/death/rebirth cycle of nature freed her from the oppressive boot of the patriarchy, enshrined in her assemblage sculpture, Uncle Louie. Martha Wilson, a cultural force through her Franklin Furnace cauldron for female performance, brought out from hiding last year her pioneering performance art from the early 1970’s in which she created a cross disciplinary language to capture the outer expression of the inner shift of archetypal energies. Her “fallen woman” as Suicide as a mock self-made portrait as a mock self-made portrait encapsulates both the exaltation and despair of those seekers of a middle passage between the Judeo-Christian dichotomies of Madonna/Whore and Eve/Lilith exploited by the mainstream media.
Marshall Arisman’s Animal Spirits pinpoints the source of America’s loss of value in the destruction of nature worshipped by the Native Americans as the rainbow source of spiritual unity within the chakra system. Michael Zansky’s Western Lands reveals the historical separation of body and mind that demonized the primordial feminine power through mental projections, accentuated here by the classical bust of Voltaire.
As the New Age Movement ushered in a feminist spirituality on the West Coast, the iconic East Village style pioneered by Rick Prol depicted the upwelling of dark matter as a demonic threat to the late 20th century urban breakdown of ego structures. In the mainstream, the collapsing of patriarchal myths of supremacy were supplanted by hidden mythologies requiring new forms of storytelling embracing the Uncertainty Principle to bring these new narratives into the light of day.
Michael Manning’s Mr. Jefferson establishes a language integrating multi-layered figuration and abstraction in which narrative is guided by symbols arising from the collective unconscious. This contemporary mythmaking from the painter’s Contradictions series revisions the complexities of the slave owner’s intimate relationships within the context of Inanna’s proactive descent into the underworld where she is killed by her “dark sister” and resurrected into a holistic being, a journey taken by many a disgraced politician today. Sophie Matisse explores the complexity of female interpretations of patriarchal myths. Here she penetrates Artemisia Gentileschi’s Queen Esther through a process of collage interwoven with proto feminine painting, thereby creating a holistic language incorporating the duality of the feminine. Meanwhile, the artist’s contemporary dialogue with Mike Bidlo over Origin of the World reveals the existing dichotomy between the male and female. While Matisse removes her female figures from master paintings in the sacred act of making space for something new to emerge, Bidlo fills this very space vacated by Courbet’s nude. The juxtaposition of these canvases sums up the sexual rift between men and women that has not been adequately addressed since the ritual acts of purification preceding the Sacred Marriage Rites of antiquity.
Having laid bare a crucial contemporary dialectic regarding gender — of masculine spirit filling the newly emptied feminine space — we can proceed into a new era of conscious engagement. Camille Eskell has plumbed the depths of the psyche to give form to the dissolution of patriarchal female archetypes. Her companion works in the exhibition reveal the necessity for breaking down internal barriers — the heart center in Erased, and the womb as fertile ground for arousing wondrous new feelings in Strange Fruit – so something new can be born in the female body.
How does the everyday woman travel this path forged by these pioneering artists? Matisse’s updating of Man Ray’s The Lovers suggests that we use our imagination to express a new cosmology formed through the sacred geometry of the heavens. Passing under her expert rendition of the Observatoire in which the heavens are emptied of the lover’s lips, we make the passage into the projection gallery, the realm of the collective unconscious. Like Perceval’s search for the Grail, Marissa Soroudi’s personal journey of self-discovery took her through the penetration of the veil that masks this realm. In Unspoken, women of the Middle East express volumes the strength and beauty of the authentic face of the feminine hidden within the Islamic culture. These images stand at the border of the underworld, where our guides are Soroudi’s inward gazing transgender Showgirls and Lanina’s heavenly creatures in the womblike stage of UnfairyTale that observe the underworld with the penetrating all-seeing Eye.
The video program reveals the transition between human and archetypal. In Core Desire, Marni Kotak breaks down in her bathtub and gives into her desire to consume the apple – the biblical symbol of temptation because it has the pentagram as its core symbol. Yet, the female returns from this descent aware of her need for protection from wounding. Giving into our feelings frees our bodies to instinctively follow the archetype as she emerges, as people did when Laurel Jay Carpenter’s Red Woman carried the weight of female desire through train of a hundred red dresses embodying the romantic hopes of the contemporary woman for a new form of love. Daniel Rothbart’s Meditation Mediation: Heide Hatry invites participation in the birth descending from an egg dropped from below a scarlet dress. In the final video, the new holistic archetype of the feminine emerges as a modern day Inanna in Richard Move’s stunning Bardo performed by Katherine Crockett, a lead dancer for Martha Graham Dance Company. Here we celebrate the arrival of the death and resurrection of the feminine embodying the opposites of heaven and earth.
In his art, Move has long explored the transgender realm of the shaman. His recent process of transition from cutting performer and choreographer to multimedia visual artist entailed a public Manhattan performance resurrecting Jeff Koon’s “fallen” wife as Red Cicciolina to reclaim her image. With a series of five performance stills, Move resurrects Venus as celebrant of a new freedom to transgress cultural boundaries and reinvent the myth of the “fallen woman” through his next move, his documentary short, Bloodwork: The Ana Mendieta Story, which premiered in one of a series of underground H.P. Salons launching the Black Madonna dialectic.
How do we enter this exciting new terrain? Harlan Emil Gruber provides the physical passage. Premiering in Black Madonna is a model outline for a full size interactive sculpture destined for Burning Man; Amethyst Portal 2009 is a culmination of the artist’s TransPortal project which has been catalyzing individuals into the paradigm shift since 2004. Colored indigo to activate the Third Eye of universal consciousness, this Stellated Dodecahedron integrates the sacred geometry – the cube, pentagram and hexagram — of the earlier portals to accelerate the quantum leap into a new society structured in holism.
The digital wizardry of Carla Gannis shows the path as one of conscious choice. Her storytelling form is borrowed from the Renaissance pergola to integrate personal history, pop culture and the holistic perspective of the newly emerging female wisdom. In Rear Window, masked thugs throw a woman in a red dress head first out of the window, satirizing the inevitable punishment for the “fallen woman” who dares, like Jezebel, to defy the patriarchal repression of the creative feminine. Integrating the Uncertainty Principle, the author enters her own narrative as the proactive feminine poised between the classical past and the technological present, thereby revealing the work itself as a triumph of conscious intention to shift the dualistic narrative of female sexuality in favor of the unknown middle path between opposites.
In her Falling Woman diptych, the Russian artist Tatyana Stepanova reveals this reconciliation as mediation between human and archetypal. This massive painting is a celebration of a newfound integration between passion and intellect: a contemporary wise woman consciously integrating the myth of Inanna’s underworld descent to incorporate the ancient understanding of the Venus cycle from Morning to Evening Star into the holism of daily living in which inner and outer worlds are indivisible.
Where has this reworking of the myth of the “fallen woman” taken us? Right where we began! Into the body and a conscious decision to go inward and connect with the long repressed archetype of Sophia, whose deep wisdom will carry us into a post-consumer culture celebrating an authentic gender equality.
Donna Ruff filtered the serpent wielding Minoan goddess through her spontaneous emotional response to the nearly simultaneous deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa in a watercolor trilogy completed in 1997. Her process revealed that the patriarchal archetypes represented by a trapped princess and nun had to disintegrate in order for a holistic image of the feminine to emerge through the schism of opposites. More recently, Vincent Baldassano’s reworking of Christian iconography resulted in gouaches depicting the reconstruction of Mary as a sexual deity within the context of the Great Round of life/death/rebirth. Such symbols of new birth originating in ancient deities are plainly marked on the bodies of Kevin Robinson’s robust corporal view of the counterculture with its iconography of such goddesses embedded in the skin.
Short of branding, how can women break away from the pull of disintegrating archetypes and deliver a new face of femininity that has the strength to emerge from behind the dual forces of repression – the veil on one hand and plastic surgery on another? While German artist Isolde Kille’s Duality is a reminder of the media stronghold on women through the standards of classical perfection, the Russian artist Irina Movmyga casts off all projections by drawing inward to connect with the feminine power in Breaking Through.
Now that we have found the means of integrating inner and outer, we can channel the power of the Black Madonna into a compelling dialectic arising independently of the media entertainment culture. The youngest artists in the exhibition, Cassie Thornton and Maya Erdelyi reveal the sublime pleasure in sharing a new dialogue with beauty embedded in their T.A.B.S. (Temporary Art Beauty Services) collaboration. Their project keeps pace with the global economic meltdown in seeking a new medium of exchange even as it takes pleasure in the pure attraction of Venus through the dress up and delivery of a shared aesthetic incorporating a long repressed sacred geometry. T.A.B.S. revolves from public arena into art gallery through unique spontaneous performance generating new forms of exchange, often incorporating the opposites as these women did at the exhibition opening, with Thornton appearing in worker uniform and Erdelyi as suited capitalist complete with bowler hat.
At Chartres, the inscription below the Magdalene window reads: Donated by the Waterbearers. This rear window on the culture, too, is Black Madonna, comprising the Great Work of contemporary century artists embodying the spirit of the Aquarian Age.
1. Gardner, Laurence; Bloodline of the Holy Grail, Element, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1996, p 257
2. ibid, p. 129
3. ibid, pp. 266 “The Notre Dame cathedrals and major Gothic constructions were mainly the work of the Children of Solomon, a guild of masons instructed by St Bernard’s Cistercian Order. St. Bernard had translated the secret geometry of King Solomon’s masons who, under their own master, Hiram Abiff, were denoted by degrees of knowledge and proficiency.”
4. ibid, pp. 264-265
5. bid, pp. 294-297
6. Starbird, Margaret; Woman With the Alabaster Jar, Bear & Company, Santa Fe, 1993, pp. 111-125. Starbird investigates the red X painted in the works of Botticelli in 1483, “the year when he allegedly became the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion.
7. ibid, p. 41.
8. ibid, p. 28, Starbird writes: “St. Bernard of Clairvau (1090-1153) in his sermons on the Canticle of Canticles (Song of Songs), equates the bride of the song symbolically with the church and with the soul of each believer. The prototype he selects to illustrate this “Bride” of Christ is Mary, the sister of Lazarus who sat at the feet of Jesus absorbing his teachings (Luke 10:38-42) and who later anointed his feet with nard and dried them in her hair (John 11:2, 12:3). But Saint Bernard also says repeatedly in his sermons that it is possible this Mary of Bethany is the same as Mary Magdalene.”