Afrodite I and II

Stephanie Bell

U.S.A., b. 1954

Afrodite I (the Greek name's Italian spelling), contains several distinct stylistic modes of abstraction and figuration, skillfully unified by persuasive compositional logic. The cultural range of the imagery in Afrodite I is vast. This work richly acknowledges the historical fact and validity of the progressive breakup of painting under Modernism and Post-Modernism, by frankly containing traces of that disintegration. But at the same time, it overcomes the disintegration by means of its own reconstitutive complexity. Stephanie Bell should be counted among the artists successfully attempting to reconstitute high art, from out of the ruins of its reductive dismantlement.

The center of Afrodite I is occupied by a flat, black oval, symbolizing the black hole of nothingness out of which the world we inhabit was created, and to which it will ultimately return. The abstract design within the black hole, either a Celtic (and also Hindu) swirling disc, or a radiating sunburst, indicates clockwise motion, making it positive and life-giving. The centrality of the upside-down, hairless female figure (or space alien) at the top of the black oval, intended to refer to Venus at the center of Botticelli's allegorical picture Primavera (1477-78), makes fertility a theme of Afrodite I. Bell picks symbols from the whole world around us to advance her overall allegorical intent. For example, the two-dimensional coiling snake, crawling into the black oval from the bottom, represents another life-force—a generic, wriggling image, suggestively phallic, and green to connote fertility. Yet the snake unavoidably also bears the Satanic symbolism of the garden of Eden.

The blue-and-red, serpentine, broad ribbon of paint, dissecting the entire painting above the black oval, is meant as a conduit for the universal life force, its colors and pattern being a decorative borrowing from African textiles. The visually powerful Nike to the left, the famous classical Greek Winged Victory of Samothrace (200 B.C.) in the Louvre, is another positive female symbol, displaying obvious physical superiority. The sculpted, monochromatic, classical head to the right, representing male energy and refinement, is that of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 A.D.), known for his cultivation of the fine arts.

Hadrian's head appears within a big swath of heavily impastoed, earth-toned and metallic-gold paint, representing a floating land mass. Below this section blue sky appears, as it does at the top of the painting. Thus there is neither solid ground nor gravity in the cosmically sweeping, yet minutely focused maxi-world of the picture. The artist implies that humanity is at some point of balance within the universe, but it's not the stable situation we'd prefer. We have therefore a fear of disintegration, of death. There is balance in the universe, but its flipside is chaos, and we fluctuate between the two. So the painting portrays human self- orientation, both physical and intellectual, which is constantly changing within the all-encompassing universe. We inhabit what the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) calls "an old chaos of the sun."

Afrodite I
Acrylic on canvas
83"w x 60"h
Stephanie Bell

The decoratively flat branches growing from the upside-down Venus/Afrodite's body belong to the Tree of Life, brightly adorned with oranges, as the tree is in Botticelli's Primavera. Two of three large discs in the painting are sun symbols: the two gold discs at the top left and top right. There is a third, half-doubled disc at the lower right, colored like the Earth as seen from space, and dissected by an empty circle like a partial eclipse. This semi-eclipsed, planet Earth disc is thus out of sync, drawing attention to itself as unstable.

Surrounding three-fourths of the painting's central black oval is a flat, rust color-field, emblem of the red clay comprising so much of our planet's surface. Floating above the upper left edge of this color-field, and above the horizon of black mountains, is a black cherub. He is a positive symbol, full of raw human energy, pure, as yet untouched by the overwhelming influences of history and culture. At the opposite end of the red-clay field is the half-figure of a girl, confident, holding a golden stick, but placed where red clay, black-hole oval, and blue sky meet—an unstable cosmic position. Yet with her golden phallic stick, she is prepared to meet the future, the striped lozenge shape below her being both tribal warrior's shield and female reproductive organ.

Aside from the Emperor Hadrian, the men in this painting do not fare so well. In the upper right corner, a screaming black man is tearing his hair out. There is a trail of blood behind him, and above and beside him is a black cloud or curtain of dripping bile, like a Rorschach smear. His white counterpart in the lower left corner, in a contorted, agonistic pose, looks down through a hole in the earth, grabbing empty space. With promontories of darker-gold earth rising like molten lava to either side of him, he resists being sucked through the gate of hell. Immediately above him, the red-clay earth breaks through its boundary, into the black space on the left, in fluid squiggles like microscopic organisms, or contour lines like a topographic map. These two generic, ineffectual men, black and white, are opposed to the head of Hadrian, who created a distinguished civilization.

Afrodite II
Acrylic on canvas
35.75"w x 84"h
Stephanie Bell

The last bit of iconography lies at the very top-center, where Afrodite's leg metamorphoses into a white cross, studded with bright jewels. More than simply Christian, this cross symbolizes the way our culture and our history protect us from chaos. Ultimately, the painting's subject is: 1) the vital, fertile definition of ourselves in the face of our present moment, our history, culture, physicality, etc.; and 2) the lack of stability in that self-definition. We situate ourselves within our whole environment, but nature will disorient us with its endless dynamism of earthquake, hurricane, volcano, flood, pestilence, famine, war. Yet behind this fluctuating chaos, there is balance: a heterogeneous equilibrium, precarious and ultimately unsustainable, yet serviceable for the time being as, in Robert Frost's phrase, "a momentary stay against confusion."

Afrodite II is an abstract painting meant as counterpoint to Afrodite I. The same serpentine, blue-and-red, umbilical conduit found in Afrodite I runs through the middle of this abstract piece. The painting's overall gold, umber, and sienna mosaic pattern represents the multitudinous facets of our lives. The greenish whirling discs take their design from a piece of Celtic jewelry. The last major feature of this painting is two parallel rows of running green trapezoids (or of foreshortened pyramids as seen from above). The trapezoids are joined by green eyes, to connote the human vision necessary to make a livable world. The color-patterns of this painting specifically suggest those of African fabrics. The canvas is as wide as a bolt of cloth, thus also suggesting the implied infinity, and the arbitrary cutting-off of that infinity, inherent in the physical finiteness present in any piece of patterned cloth.

That implied infinity in this painting was inspired by two well-known works of art: the 100-foot Endless Column (1918, 1937-8) by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi (Romanian, 1876-1957); and the sinuous, multi-faceted, 100-meter, shiny-steel Art Tower (1990) in Mito, Japan, by contemporary architect Arata Isozaki. In his book Brancusi (1986), Radu Varia says the sculptor's Endless Column "stands on the boundary between the formal space of the world and cosmic space," and it "constantly reinvents a new measure and a new channel to the eternal."

Within this Afrodite diptych, therefore, lies a complex interplay of meaning between, on the one hand, the self-evolving, abstract channel to eternity, and on the other hand, humanity's created, constantly changing, precarious stability within the oblivious chaos of the cosmos.

April 8, 1997
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