Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Black Valentine

“Love comes in spurts/in dangerous flirts/and it murders your heart/they don’t tell you that part.”

-Richard Hell

“Pleasure has already killed me, transformed and translated me… I am the drunken bee wandered into your household.  You may with courage eject me through the window; or by accident step on me.  Be assured, I’ll feel no pain.”

-Patricia Highsmith

At the beginning of this year I was commissioned by the excellent team of Anne Barrett and Todd Dunton of 30E Design to create a series of works to be sent out as Valentine’s Day gifts for clients, design firms, curators and magazines in New York.  This has become something of a tradition for them and is in its third year (with as many artists having participated – each year they choose someone new).  Suffice it to say that my first impulse was flattery to be chosen, and I readily accepted.  My second impulse was bemusement, as I see little in my work that could inspire the perfunctory, knee-jerk sentiments associated with love demanded of the day.  Of all “holidays”, there is no other that so inspires guilt and shame (in the single or coupled) and throws people (mostly men) into last minute panics of preparation around a day named for some saint (I say somesaint because there were dozens of St. Valentines and it is unclear which holds the honor of the eponymous day, though of all of them were known far more for their sacrifices and martyrdoms than for romantic love).  However, the late 18th century (and there are earlier references in The Canturbury Tales and Hamlet) saw the day gradually associated with sentimental romanticism, and by the 20th century has been shamelessly propagated by the greeting card and candy industries.  Of course it is very fashionable to deride Valentine’s day as a “Hallmark Holiday”, but I believe the derision is well founded.  There are activities surrounding the 14th of February more depressing in their ability to rouse half-hearted yet maniacally compulsive acts of appeasement than the worst commercial aspects of Christmas.  Here are a few examples:

  • On-line floral delivery arrangements which always cost more than promised as the vase included in the “deal” is unacceptable in any circumstance – to say nothing of the numerous hidden charges associated with ordering flowers this way (I admit I speak from experience here).   Additionally, most of the flowers come from Central American sweatshops where a job as a drug mule swallowing condoms full of heroin to be digested later seems like the better gig (see the 2004 film “Maria Full of Grace”).
  • Restaurants contending with pleading men for last minute reservations and scrambling to divide the entire house into a series of dueces, each adorned with the token rose (or worse, a carnation) and creating annoying desserts for two.  (On the upside, for the restaurant industry at least – the men are quite free with their money on this night.)
  • Public radio making insidious but transparent attempts at tricking listeners into believing that a torturous, guild-laden fund drive is actually a lucky opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by ordering flowers for an exorbitant rate to “help support the news.”  (I think they pull this shit on Mother’s Day as well.)
  • CVS and Wallgreen’s lining their shelves with heart-shaped boxes of candy and offering buy-one-get-one-free deals (which seem especially puzzling given the circumstance, although a friend suggested that one is for the intended sweetheart, while the other is for the slob who bought them to consume on the car ride home).

No patrons of insipid sentimentality, Anne and Todd made it clear that they had no intention of sending out anything containing the traditional drek associated with a normal Valentine.  I give them great credit for the idea itself: a Valentine as a professional gift is far more clever, unexpected, and likely to be viewed than the perfunctory Christmas card (with which most companies find themselves inundated each December with words and gifts carefully skirting any denominational references and simply offering good tidings for the new year).  As to Valentine’s Day and my obvious contempt for the holiday, I should admit – so as not to be too disingenuous – that I make free use of hearts, flowers, and other trappings of Victorian schoolgirl embroidery, folk art and benign, simplistic symbols or icons associated with love and pretty-ness throughout my work (can I argue that this is ironic?  Probably not).  For this reason, perhaps their choice in me as their artist was not so far off.  In the interest of clarity, however, one of the first things I asked Anne was if she was aware that my work was becoming increasingly laced with imagery including razor blades, bear traps, womens’ asses and prescription drugs (mostly of the Benzodiezapine and SSRI variety), as well as healthy doses of profanity (including the occasional reference to pussy hair and girls peeing).  She told me she was, and that that is why she chose me.  It was in this way we came up with what we began to refer to as the anti-Valentines.

I realize that there is little that is groundbreaking or original in this idea.  A quick browse on etsy will yield endless offerings that cleverly turn any and all traditional sentiments on their heads – throw pillows with phrases like “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me” (my hands are trembling in the temptation to insert a winking emoticon here) or tea-towels eschewing embroidered floral patterns for spread-eagle centerfolds.  There is no dearth of enterprising card companies creating sentiments for jilted lovers, jealous boyfriends, and a variety of sad, frustrated singles to be sent by smug coupled friends (the very same people who go to the restaurants with the carnations, surprise each other with FTD deliveries at work and exchange  pajamagrams) who may or may not realize that the whole idea of a gag card of this sort is a cruel means of reaffirming their own tenuous bond.  Nevertheless, on the heels of a divorce, my current mood wavers between general misanthropy and and a bristling confidence in the future (I say this so as not to come across as a complete cynic – I am not).  However, I can say emphatically that as I have and always will shudder at a designated day to acknowledge romantic feelings using chocolate or stuffed animals (often stuffed with chocolate), I could not resist the opportunity to create my own small series for this odious day.

I began with a walk through the pink card isles of Target and Walgreen’s, where I was saddened but not surprised to see the usual simpering declarations in rhyme along with odd cards featuring puppies (no doubt neutered, conveying a kind of desperate, non-sexual fidelity) and old-timey photos of small children kissing (also calling forth an incongruent portrayal of asexual innocence).  So, finding only disgust as fodder for my project, I set down to work by creating an ultra-traditional border of roses made from etching and woodcut to serve as the framing device for each piece.  Then I set my mind to the content.

Most of the quotes are either paraphrased or ripped off directly from various sources.  My days of writing rhymes are not over, but they are long, irrelevant to the occasion, and also quite bad.   Figuring prominent among the chosen phrases are bits culled mainly from Leonard Cohen and Phillip Roth.  The general vibe I sought out was initially crude (bordering on the pornographic) and wholly cynical.  Anne put the kibosh on the former but not the latter, and it is true than some clients might be put off by a few of my proposed phrases, for which I wouldn’t blame them (Henry Miller’s phrase “I feel like the little boy who had to stop the break in the dike and had nothing but his finger” was a bit too suggestive, to say nothing of “Your whore’s mouth whispers words you have said a thousand times before to a thousand men.  But that doesn’t matter.  Before me there were no men, and after me there will be none.”  However, “It is enough that you feel”, taken out of context, managed to make the cut*).  Other choices of authors were dismissed early on (by me) for various reasons: Baudelaire seemed too predictable and histrionic.  The bits from plays by Socrates I was reading at the time had too many incest references, and no one wants to be reminded of any aspect the Oedipus saga when carnal or romantic love is on the table.  Sappho and, as I mentioned, Henry Miller, I expected to be shoo-ins, but found in both such an exuberant, unbridled love of life that it detracted from a cryptic mood of gloom and Weltschmerz I wanted to bear down upon the recipients.  And now to the specifics:

Q:  How were they done?  How big are they?  etc.

A: These pieces – I show five examples below – were done using etching and woodcut to create the above-mentioned flower border on 9 x 6″ sheets of gampi “double-sided” paper.  The imagery was embroidered, and I stuck exclusively to bear traps, shackles and hand cuffs, and pharmaceuticals – objects one might (or should) associate with danger, bodily harm, bondage (not necessarily of a sexual variety), and quiet, passive addiction.   Some of the text was embroidered, while some was written in ink over banners painted with gouache.

David Curcio

Oh Innocent Beloved, you fail to understand and I can’t tell you… but within a year my passion will be dead.”

“Sometimes our secrets are all we got (our lies we must defend).”

“Love is the admixture of the merciless with the tender.”

“Give me absolute control over every living soul, and lie beside me, baby, that’s an order.”

David Curcio

“Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”

So as the leaden skies and cimmerian gloom of February hangs over us, the hot pinks and reds that build up to February 14th may be Hallmark’s way of reminding us of our real priorities in life.  Whether these are love, spending money, or the mollifying of our own lonely souls with a dinner for two remains up for a debate I suppose will not be resolved (or really questioned for that matter).

*The quotes by Henry Miller were taken from Opus Pistorum, also called Under the Roofs of Paris, published in 1941 by a Los Angeles bookseller and pornographer who paid Miller a dollar a page to write “an erotic novel.”


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