"Beauty halts and freezes the melting flux of nature."
- Camille Paglia
Medusa’s Lair is a panorama of subterranean delights, a triumphiant trompe l’oeil where everyone is on the brink of polymorphously perverse climax. It captures a liminal state between a painting and a film, suggested by the 16:9 black bar framing (letterboxing).
To dramatise this idea: the people in the painting are in a stone sofa that’s perfectly moulded around the current shape of their bodies, halting the suggested movement of film. This idea is also followed through to the mechanics of composition where in order to mimic the ‘wide angle camera lens’ effect I used curvilinear perspective and studied the inner workings of a movie camera.
The man in the top right falls asleep into his mane as if it were a neck pillow to rest his head in at a departure lounge. His claw knuckle-busters effetely pierce a chocolate coated strawberry, taken from the ritualistic, lingam-yoni inflected chocolate fountain stalagmite scene on the right. The chards of the chandelier mimic stalactites from the roof of the cave.
The girl on the bottom right (me) dons a vaudevillian corset with an Edwardian ruff, accidentally doubling as a napkin on the table, pre-emptively mopping up a falling martini glass. Medusa is in ritual communion with the snake; a closer look reveals a pattern in the snake doubling as an eye, while the tongue of the creature and woman meet seductively. In the top left, a satyr’s horned crown vies for similitude with the chard-chandelier
The piece plays into New Media’s dissolution of the static, coherent image, encapsulated by the modern iPhone boomerang format and 80s vogueing (simultaneously a dance and a pose) while also paying homage to the sensuous nudes of Caravaggio and classical antiquity. I owe my ability to think in this way to cultural critic Camille Paglia and her panoramic sweep of art history. She is one of the few art historian/theorists whose scholarship has successfully straddled the increasingly “high and low” relationship between the fine arts and the popular arts.
" Iconic photographs exert a sense of cinematic grandeur; they seem to have a purpose beyond the static image in a larger, overarching story.
Stop a great film at any point and you can trace the careful eye of the art director balancing all the elements to look picture perfect."
The seed of the idea started from having a film idea which I couldn’t make as a film, so I decided to just paint a scene from it. I then began to think about how film and non-time based mediums like photography and painting influence each other.
Iconic photographs exert a sense of cinematic grandeur; they seem to have a purpose beyond the static image in a larger, overarching story. Stop a great film at any point and you can trace the careful eye of the art director balancing all the elements to look picture perfect.
People are sitting in a stone sofa which is moulded around their bodies. You couldn’t show this concept in a film because people would be changing their position and stone is solid and holds its shape.
The natural elements in the painting, for example the stalagmites, represent the flux of nature which has paradoxically bent itself towards human need, similar to how directors use film to capture life but in doing so bend it towards an artistic eye.
I immediately started brainstorming for the costumes that all of the characters would wear.
Paradox, and reconciliation of opposites occupied a large part of my thinking:
Applying the level of detail to each person that would usually be reserved for singular portraits, despite being part of a larger scene.
Organising a narrative around each of the costumes, so that each model appears unstudied, despite also being divinely choreographed.
The intricacy of the outfits playing off against the insouciance of the models.
“I think there is beauty in everything. What ‘normal’ people would perceive as ugly, I can usually see something of beauty in it."
- Alexander McQueen
The discernment of which outfits and which scenery would work, prompted me to formulate a philosophy of aesthetics.
I started with the axiom that artistic harmony is deserving of respect because it is harder to make something look beautiful and harmonious than ugly. It's harder to stitch an egg back up after its broken than to break it in the first place. I then imagined a criterion with three tiers: the ugly, the pretty and then the beautiful/captivating.
I think firstly it is easy to make something look ‘ugly’. Ugly as in remiss, orderless, unfortunate, haphazard. The botched Ecce Homo restoration of Jesus for example.
It is slightly more difficult to make something look ‘pretty’. Pretty as in a reliance of received ideas of the beautiful: flowers, perfectly sculpted bodies, proportionality and symmetry. It is hard to get this right, but it is the safer option. When you make something look too pretty, it becomes kitsch, trite, camp. See @relmartist
The highest order of beauty in my eyes is beauty in the fearsome, the damned, the cursed. Beauty which occurs at the edge of chaos.
Artists who to me have achieved this synthesis would be Alexander McQueen and Dalí.
Alexander McQueen alchemised oft-overlooked material, gritty urban eyesores, into something raw and subversive.
Young Dalí made pilgrimages to the Prado to study and absorb the technical virtuosity of classical and renaissance masters Raphael, Vermeer and Velasquez.
However he spurned and subverted the austere and formulaic archetypes of classicism (realism, colonnades, seraphic maidens) in favour of dismembered body parts, eggs, locusts and decaying donkeys; creating a stirring, tenebrous aesthetic order that was unlike anything anyone had seen before.
A big influence for these costume designs was my the work of my mother (known in the makeup world as Phyllis Cohen) who was active in the New Romantics movement.
In her work, the face and body become a site of play, trompe l'oeil and experimentation.
As a makeup artist, she wanted to bring the attention to detail that she had learned as a classically trained artist and illustrator to the fashion world.
With Medusa's Lair, I wanted to bring the lush, cinematic sweep of wardrobe, scenery and narrative of film, to painting.
The next stage was then preparing for the photoshoot, so I could have realistic references to work from before I started painting.
I sourced the models from Tinder, and the photographer and lighting assistant from the photography course.
I spray painted a beanbag with some stone texture spray paint from Wilko for the models to sit in, resembling the stone sofa that the models would sit in in the final painting.
For some of them, I had predetermined poses that I wanted them to try out. However I surprisingly found that the best photos, the most naturalistic, unstudied photos, were the accidental ones captured as the model was changing poses or talking to me.
Since I was trying to make the painting resemble a wide angle camera lens, the conventional rules of perspective were disrupted. There aren't many straight lines in my composition which also made it very difficult to plot the perspective.
I tried reading some standard books on perspective from the library, but they were written for an architect/draftsman whose main concern is with capturing a neat, flattened technical plan of reality, which is very different from how the camera actually sees things.
My rough sketches of the scene would indicate a wide angle lens, since the objects are relatively close yet it still encompasses a wide field of view. When I traced orthogonal lines from different films shot on wide angle lenses I found that they often lead to 3, 4 or more vanishing points off screen.
Wide angle lenses capture wider fields of view but the images get distorted around the edges so they find their pictorial corollary in advanced curvilinear 3rd, 4th and 5th point projections, used to encompass extremely wide fields of view.
In my search for a perspective methodology, I came across a book by art director Harold Michelson explaining he called Camera Angle Projection method.
To any other person, it would probably be rather dry reading, but I found a lot of utility in it.
It was devised in 1940 as a system of perspective drawing for cinema. It draws upon geometry and the technicalities of cinematography to demonstrate what a particular lens, sees in any given shot. It was a standard skill for Hollywood art directors, set designers and storyboard artists.
After doing comparative reading on this method, cinematography theory, traditional drawing perspective and using a bit of intuition and trial and error I was able to devise a useful perspective system.
I calculated that the camera would have a 25mm lens and would be 7 foot off the ground, 15 foot away from the point of focus at a downward tilt of 15˚ with a width angle of 47˚ and a height angle of 27˚.
I did the bulk of this theory in half term when I didn’t have access to camera equipment but if it were in term time then I would have taken a camera out and done some practical tests.
Once I had all my resources, began compositing things together and painting. In the end, it took about 4 months to get it looking realistic.
The hardest part to paint was the stone sofa, since the only reference I had for the stone texture was the original inspiration (Wet Sheets, pictured above in inspirations section).
I tried to paint most of it from my imagination, thinking about logically where the light would fall.
But for the finishing touches, I used Oculus to recreate the stone sofa so I had a realistic reference to copy from.