The following is a short question and answer session I did for the Mysterious Creatures exhibition at the Rogue Gallery and Art Center in Medford, OR. While the newspaper article used select quotes, I thought the reporter asked some interesting questions, so I'm publishing the entire exchange here.
1. What is the theme you're reflecting in this exhibit?
On the surface, the theme of the work in this exhibit is devils doing... well, devilish things. On a deeper level, I use devils as a metaphor for more human behavior. Each piece has its own theme, ranging from shunning/scapegoating, forgiveness (and its limits) to simple contrariness. I try not to be overly explicit with my ideas, however, to allow viewers room for their own interpretations.
2. What or who are your major sources of inspiration, especially for this exhibit?
I have many influences, like artists James Ensor and Philip Guston, and author J. G. Ballard for example. For the work in this show, I looked at past depictions of Hell and its inhabitants, from the almost human devils of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement to the beautifully bizarre creatures found in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s a large and inventive resource. The idea to use devils as a metaphor for human behavior comes from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, where he used monsters and aliens for the same purpose.
3. I think your style of art is very intriguing, though provoking, and consistent. How do you decide what you want to reflect in a painting through your style?
The quick answer is trial and error. It may not be obvious from the finished piece, but there is a great deal of improvisation in my work. I usually start with a general idea of what I want, but I’m mindful of the process of painting and try to take advantage of unintended outcomes. The dialogue I have with the material, that gives the paint a “voice,” helps integrate my ideas with my style, even though the idea may change as I work. I not only accept the result, I welcome it.
#jamesdeeb #devilsadvocate #mysterious creatures
A (very) short video showing the many stages that my painting Voted Most Likely (no. 2) went through before it was finished. Roughly six weeks of thought, trial and error is condensed into a little more than 30 seconds.
TWO-BIT FAUST – Scene three
INTER TITLE – 15 YEARS LATER
INT. A HOSPITAL ROOM – NIGHT
IVs drip. Heart monitors beep. DARREN lies in a bed, asleep (or unconscious). He’s older and worse for wear. A CHAPLAIN and a NURSE move from his bedside toward the door.
You should notify his next of kin.
We can’t find anyone. I don’t think he has any.
They leave. A moment later, KEVIN dressed as a doctor, enters. DARREN stirs and opens his eyes. He starts as he sees KEVIN and pulls the bed sheet up to his chin.
Haven’t seen you for a while. I was wondering if you’d show up.
Oh, I wouldn’t miss your big moment. Not after all we’ve
been through. But all roads do come to an end.
You’ve come to take me to Hell.
Not quite. You see, you’re not quite Hell material.
I don’t understand. I did everything you said.
I drank, I gambled. I hooked up with that crazy
stripper friend of yours. Hell, I even stopped
trying to get my GED after you told me school
was for squares. Maybe I never got around
to the killing and the raping and the unspeakable
evil stuff, but my life has to add up to something.
Add up to something? Yes, indeed it does.
But I try to avoid dividing anything by zero.
Have you heard of Dante’s Inferno?
Is that some kind of nightclub?
I guess even the best PR campaigns run their
course. No, it’s an epic poem that explains Hell’s
inner workings in great detail. Near the beginning,
the author describes the shore of the river Styx
where all the people who have done nothing
to warrant entry into either Heaven or Hell
wander for eternity.
I don’t understand. I’m going to the beach?
No, you Fool! You slept-walked through a joyless
life, so now you will spend eternity in a gray, joyless
limbo. Don’t worry, you’ll feel right at home.
You’ve been practicing for this for all of your life.
DARREN sits up in bed.
That sucks! Why didn’t you like, trick
me into doing something really evil?
Look Darren, that would have taken a lot of energy
from me and a bit of raw talent from you. I’m old.
I’m tired. And I’m lazy. You… well you’re just a steaming
lump of wasted potential. I didn’t need to trick you into
going to Hell, I only had to keep you from going to Heaven.
Therefore, I didn’t need you to do anything truly evil,
I just had to keep you from doing anything truly good.
Sophie… That could’ve worked. I would’ve been happy…
Could have, would have. All in the past tense
Darren. As you will soon be. All of those “what if’s”
are something you can ponder as you wander
“the beach.” Think of it as your own private Hell.
Time to go.
The heart monitor stops beeping and settles into a drone. DARREN lies dead and KEVIN is nowhere to be seen.
FADE TO BLACK.
Below, Dissident, 2013. Sleep tight.
Part two of my short script Two-Bit Faust. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
TWO-BIT FAUST – Scene two
INTER TITLE – 10 YEARS LATER
INT. DARREN’S LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
DARREEN sits in a beat up recliner. In one hand he holds a slip of paper that he flips nervously, in the other, he holds a cordless phone. He looks at the piece of paper. In neat, hand written letters it says, “Sophie” along with a phone number. DARREN lays the phone in his lap, takes a long drink from a can of beer, picks up the phone and begins to dial.
KEVIN appears behind him, seemingly from nowhere.
Good evening, Darren.
Jesus, Kevin! You scared the crap out of me!
Occupational hazard I’m afraid.
Um… sorry I said the “J” word in front of you.
I’ll let it pass this time. Just keep the good news to yourself from now on.
You're looking particularly sheepish today, Darren. What are you hiding?
Well, I… I met this girl, I mean, woman… She wants me to call her…
A woman wants you to call? It seems I’ve arrived just in time.
Just in time for what?
To save you from making a horrible mistake.
It’s just a phone call, Kevin. I don’t see how that’s a mistake…
Your naiveté is astounding. Let me tell you what will happen if you make this
phone call. First, you go on a few dates. Soon after, she moves in. After that,
you marry and then come the children. Before you know it, your life is carved
up like a fatted calf. You will have lost your freedom.
But, I’m tired of being lonely…
Being alone is the price of freedom.
Are you alone?
You and the other demons… you’re free. Are you alone?
But I would never surrender my freedom. That is why
we fought. That is why we continue to fight.
Darren, before you make any hasty decisions, spend a night
on the town. Think of it as one final celebration of freedom and
bachelorhood if you will. After that, you are free to follow
your heart without any interference from me. Now, I want
you to go to the Pole Barn and introduce yourself to
Tiffany, another of my protégés… Tell her you
are one of Fernando’s amigos…
She’s a stripper?!… Wait, Fernando?
Yes, Fernando. My name is legion and all that rot.
And please, she’s an exotic dancer, in the same way
you are a fuel replacement technician. Her stage name
is ‘Tough Tif.’ She dresses like a scantily clad
construction worker. It’s almost ironic.
KEVIN removes a small plastic bag from his pocket. He hands it to DARREN, who looks back confused.
A bit of crystal to get the party started.
It’s blue, just like her eyes. You should use
that line. It’s pure gold.
Hurry along Darren. The night beckons.
DARREN slowly puts the bag in his pocket, grabs his coat and hesitantly walks out the door. KEVIN waits until he’s sure DARREN won’t return and lets out a deep sigh. He picks up the piece of paper with Sophie’s number, handling it like a live hand grenade, and places it in an ashtray. He breathes on it and it begins to burn. KEVIN stares at the trail of smoke, expressionless.
Read Part Three.
Below, Idle Playthings Are the Devil’s Hands, 2014.
A year or so ago, I wrote a short film script called Two-Bit Faust. Since I’m unlikey to produce it anytime soon, I’m serializing the three scenes on my blog. Hope you enjoy it.
TWO BIT FAUST – Scene one
EXT. OUTSIDE A LIQUOR STORE - Night
DARREN, a slovenly youth in his late teens, stands at the edge of the parking lot. He’s obviously nervous. A PATRON walks past.
DARREN (approaching the patron)
Hey man, can you do me a favor? I like forgot my ID.
Could you buy me a six-pack or something?
The PATRON scowls and walks faster into the store. DARREN turns away to find KEVIN standing behind him. Kevin is well groomed and well dressed, perfectly normal except for the two small horns protruding from his forehead.
Good evening, Darren. Throwing a little party?
How do you know my name?
An astute question. Let me explain. You’ve heard of guardian angels?
Well, we don’t have as a catchy name for what I do, so let’s just say
I pitch for the other team.
Wow! You’re some kind of demon!
I prefer to avoid labels. And I’ve had so many names.
Tell you what, why don’t you just call me Kevin?
DARREN looks perplexed and somewhat disappointed.
Look Darren, you are at a crossroads,
figuratively speaking of course…
Just like the song.
Just like the song, yes. Try not to interrupt.
You are at a crossroads, and I’m here to advocate
for the not so straight and narrow.
If you’re my personal demon, where’s my guardian angel?
How the Hell should I know? My subscription to
Heaven Weekly ran out a long time ago.
So you want me to like go out and do an axe murder?
Whoa killer, baby steps. You have a whole life of unspeakable
evil ahead of you. The felonies can wait. Why don’t we start
with a few misdemeanors?
KEVIN pulls a six pack out of thin air.
Here you go! Malt liquor, the drink of pimps and kings.
And tall boys to boot!
Thanks, uh, Kevin. See you round.
Oh yes, Darren. I’ve got quite a road trip planned for you…
Below, Gentleman Caller, 2014. It seems appropriate.
Rod Serling had a problem. He wanted to write hard-hitting, socially conscious dramas, but his commercial sponsors tried to censor him at almost every turn. They were afraid of having their products associated with his stories, especially any group that was the target of Serling’s critique. It dawned on him that he could veil his commentary in stories about aliens and monsters. The rest is a television milestone born out of what I call the “Twilight Zone epiphany.”
I had a similar revelation. It started with a sketch of a man wearing a collared shirt and a thin necktie. He was the typical professional I see everyday. The sketch was as boring as it sounds. In frustration, I drew a couple of horns on his head, and for some reason, wrote the words ‘killing eternity’ at the top of the page. Other ideas featuring devils came in rapid succession; most were tragic or violent, some were funny and a few were outright bizarre. I have been using devils in my work ever since.
Like Goya’s treatment of the monsters in his Caprichos and Ensor’s treatment of the demons in his The Temptation of Saint Anthony, I am ambivalent about my devils. On one hand, I feel I can do whatever I want to them, because they deserve whatever happens to them. They are devils, aren’t they? On the other hand, I am aware that Hell is sometimes described as a distorted mirror of Creation (and that almost all of my devils are left handed). So I am torn between laughing at them and crying with them.
I've recently published a short catalog as a Blurb book, which you can preview and purchase here. Below is the introduction written by curator Chuck Gneich.
Hope you enjoy it:
Inspired by the macabre, James Deeb continues to interpret the decay of the world, utilizing subhuman figures as content. These awkward characters are a dichotomy—seeming both humorously goofy yet somehow tragic—but always deserving of closer inspection.
Deeb’s characters are produced with a heavy application of oil paint that glistens on the surface of each work of art. The multiple layers of paint construct a façade—a physical and metaphorical mask with which the bizarre creatures are created. At times, a clearly defined mask can be found concealing the creature’s identity. The paint flickers with reflecting light—jumping across the surface of each image and creating visual movement—offering the viewer a quick distraction from the subject that is…yet another form of mask.
Perception is everything. We constantly try to create personas that veil our self-perceived imperfections. We wear metaphorical masks to deflect any outside curiosity of our self-defined flaws—deterring the world from coming too near. Deeb’s paintings remind us to be true to ourselves. Embracing reality is a required experience and the only way to truly survive. The mask can only camouflage the face of the creature…a face that—if exposed—would reveal that there is nothing to fear.
Chuck Gniech, Curator
I recently saw an exhibit of mixed media works on paper by Marcos Bontempo at the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. It was an excellent show that got me thinking about the use of mythological symbolism in contemporary art.
The work is spare. Most feature single archaic-looking figures or heads occupying an otherwise white field. The images are predominately black with a few containing areas of rusty red or earthy yellow. The figures are often composite creatures, half-humans partially metamorphosed into snakes or other beasts. Even though the gallery statement doesn't mention any historical precedents that inform Bontempo’s work, I could not help being reminded of similar creatures populating ancient Greek vases and Babylonian sculptures. Unlike those earlier works, the images are made up of seemingly random textures and marks that have the character of Rorschach blotters. This dichotomy is the core of the work. It allows the imagery to oscillate between cultural mythological archetypes and the artist’s subjective psychology.
I can describe the work in many ways. Immediate, intense, even cryptic. It is not, however, new. Quite the contrary, the pieces feel very old, like artifacts uncovered at an archeological dig. And that's fine. Art that mines this subject matter does not need to be cutting edge to be compelling. What it does need is the quality of a mysterious folk tale that continues to fascinate long after its original telling.
Interview video at the South Suburban College event
A rusting girder covered with several layers of chipped paint.
A warped and rotted floorboard, broken free from each new nail.
A crumbling brick surrounded by failing mortar.
I’m attracted to these kinds of objects. I often reference their surfaces in my work. And even though some of them are truly beautiful, my attraction isn’t purely aesthetic. Instead they remind me of how all things, despite attempts to the contrary, fade and decay. Nothing is immune. It could be something as solid as a building, as fragile as a life or as nebulous as an idea. My work is invested with this sense of fading, even when I’m working with a human face or figure. The painted skin is as chipped and scabbed as any weathered door. A crowd of people becomes a chaotic parade where all the actors have their own routes and their own destinations.And as absurd as it may sound, I don’t find this negative or ‘dark’. It’s a release. One that is more comic than tragic.
“I bet you love scary movies.”
I was answering questions for a couple of visitors at an exhibition of my work, when one of them made that comment. I thought for a moment and replied, “No, not really. But I feel compelled to watch them.” She nodded in understanding. Many stories do not have a happy ending. Other stories do not end at all. I’m glad she understood.
Another comment I hear frequently goes more or less like this: “I love your work, but I don’t think I could live with it.” My response is always the same: “That’s exactly why you should live with it.” I’ve visited the homes of several people who own my work and have had the opportunity to see how they live with it. One collector had a piece hanging in his breakfast nook, near the back door. I asked him, “Why there?” He replied that it was what he wanted to look at in the morning before starting his day. Many puzzles take a long time to solve. Other puzzles have no solution. I’m glad he understood.