Culture

Guardians of the Secret

John Kennedy

Jackson Pollock is the Celtic artist transported to another time as lightning post, all feeling instrument, all-American shape shifter, a radar screen chronicling the psychic energy of the ancients swimming in the ethereal blue unconscious.


* "Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly be-smoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last came to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, until you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but alas, deceptive idea would dart you through: -- It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale -- It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements -- It's a blasted heath --It's a Hyperborean winter scene -- It's the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. Thatonce found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject .The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with it's three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads."
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick


Scottish steel and Irish fire that's the sword that I desire.
-- Hugh MacDiarmid


Guardians of the Secret (GS for short) was painted in the summer of 1943 and was one of a succession of paintings where Jackson Pollock used the surrealist method of tapping the unconscious to liberate the creative psyche and by so doing paint in a more direct and spontaneous manner. GS hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is a relatively big painting (48 x 75ins.) but much smaller than the massive "drip" paintings for which Pollock is famous. GS and its sister paintings of the inter-war period marked a metamorphosis in Pollock's work when he began to shed the influences of Picasso, Miro, Orozco, El Greco and Native American Indian Art. GS is a frenzy of strokes, daubs and sinuous lines texturizing and masking ephemeral animal and human derived forms all buzzing and abounding and hovering in and around three vertical rectangular plains curated by two overpowering totemic deities and a pointy eared hound in prone position directly under the white "slab" rectangle where the viewer's gaze is entranced to go.

In her book on Pollock, Ellen Landau offers this interpretation of the two totemic figures in GS: the totemic figure on the right of the white "slab" is a bearded, crown-bedecked "king" seemingly ejaculating semen which clearly indicates its gender while the figure on the left is a heavy bosomed headless woman in flowing gown and again the gender of this figure is unequivocally clear. This is a condensation of Ellen Landau's reading of the two figures. I believe it to be grand speculation, but to speculate further and in mirth I'll give my reading. The figure on the right is Ishmael the survivor and narrator of Melville's Moby Dick, with his white mask and harpoon/staff in left hand while the figure on the left which has a skull hovering over its skeletal frame, something like traditional skeleton figures from Mexico, represents death or Captain Ahab's watery end. I'll cut back to Ellen Landau here, who concludes that the floating white "skull" form is in fact a horse-faced mask. I would refer to Ishmael's description of Queequeg in chapter10 of Moby Dick: "Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of George Washington's head… Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed".

As for the other forms that inhabit the space between the two totemic sentinels, they are a menagerie from Pollock's fertile psyche that he has left dreamily obscure. The head and shoulders that appear in thick white line above the suspended dark body of a "whale" shape in the white slab conjures up the image of Yojo ( Queequeg's little wooden hunch back idol ), which Ishmael describes as "exactly the color of a three days' old Congo baby". The churning, milky white (no pun intended) slab seems to me to represent the sea and the battleground between Captain Ahab and the white whale at the end of Moby Dick. In the sea or slab it's possible to make out among stick iconography three mast-like perpendiculars and the dark whale form hanging above them. In fact, more than one fishlike form careers around in the creamy brine.

Below the slab lies a pointy eared dog which critics have said represents Pollock's pet or a dog from Egyptian mythology, but in chapter 42 of Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale", we find a dog and a few lines are worth quoting from Ishmael's reverie at the beginning of this chapter. "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me". Further into the same chapter, Ishmael remarks, "to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they would send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity".

The glyphs surrounding the white dog could be construed as a salute to former Pollock mentor John Graham who signed the date on his own paintings in this fashion and the large 0 and small 3 might be a reference to ozone. I was hookedby GS thirty years ago and still am, for its frenetic portrayal of psychic energy and its dancing iconography, which underwent a final explosive metamorphosis in the famous drippaintings of the late forties and early fifties.

Pollock, like many of his generation, was enraptured by the beautiful rhythmic prose in Moby Dick and it seems likely that his artist's sensibility would have picked out chapters like "The Whiteness of the Whale" and "The Spouter Inn" to contemplate and marvel over. Pollock wasn't known for intellectual verbosity, but he possessed a rare instinctive intelligence and self belief in his role as a ground breaking artist which for short periods offset a psychosis incurred from an itinerant childhood and parental break-up. In teenage-hood this traumatic background manifested itself in heavy drinking and, in later life, acute alcoholism and notorious displays of verbal and physical belligerence.

Pollock's vision at this time might be best summed up in these phrases: "I paint myself, I paint from inside, I paint the inside, I paint from the subconscious, I dip into the soul, I connect to the child in me, I paint what I am". Pollock declared at one time, the only other creative thing happening in his time in America was jazz. As the jazz of Charlie Parker caught the mood of a vibrant young country with a short history and an arts culture still in thrall to Europe, so too did Pollock in a revelatory brute beauty transcribed with immense psychic and physical energy onto his "new world icons". Pollock's later canvases of exploding coloured ribbons and threads were in fact intimate ongoing self portraits of a Promethean artist trying to escape the chains of an acute psychogenic illness, not dissimilar in searing insight to Van Gogh's self portraits. New creativity for a new age: saxophone notes played faster than the speed of light with painting that came from the same psychic wellspring but in both cases this seething big city energy osmosis had it's umbilical cord stretching through time and space to ancient cultures in Africa, Ireland and Scotland respectively.

Robert Motherwell, artist and contemporary of Pollock's, in an interview remembers Pollock in this way: "I thought and still think of him essentially as Celtic characterised by a lyricism in which the labyrinthine line, the effusion of feeling, the formal complexity and the supremacy of instinct is typically Celtic. It's enough to think of the wood engravings of ancient Ireland".

If Motherwell had thought also of Celtic metalwork and jewellery and the illuminated manuscripts of Christian monks in their knotted mysteries he would have come closer to the enigma that is Pollock .The Celtic Knot which was the anima of Celtic culture in visual and metaphysical terms still has it's instrumental seers in the modern flux and the exile from the mother culture, if we look at the works of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas or more contemporary stream dippers such as Van Morrison and his soul brothers Jim Morrison and Tim Buckley. The "knot" of the Celtic psyche, through conquest and long oppression, both from a new religion and a new invader sank into the all-conquering profane, but while the visual arts almost died out, the oral tradition survived through music, poetry and story telling, even if the language form was that of the Anglo Saxon invader.

Pollock is the Celtic artist transported to another time as lightning post, all feeling instrument, all-American shape shifter, a radar screen chronicling the psychic energy of the ancients swimming in the ethereal blue unconscious. It is little wonder he was so drawn to Native American Indian art and ritual, for his cracked spirit must have seen something of home there. Pollock unravelled the knot unknowingly and it unravelled him in the end. What we see in Pollock's art is the unfathomable mystery of life or the mystery of the collective consciousness that inhabits the spirit through a million years of breathing.

In ancient Ireland Pollock would have been a faith or inspired /ecstatic one, hence poet or prophet, in later Christian times called a fili, one having the divine power of second sight. Pollock was a seer and this gift or two edged sword he could handle when he was painting, but when he had to deal with the mundane and the harsh spotlight of fame he was like a fawn to the slaughter. He desired fame and fortune as a royal badge to wear on his spiritual quest as king of artists and de-throner of Picasso but his cracked soul sank into an alcoholic haze and his muse turned into an ever-present harpy pecking at him until the end. In The Muse The Harpy and The Burial Mound a weighty tome about Minoan Culture, Professor Richard M. Furey of Coleraine University, recalls the sirens of Homer's Odyssey: "for every drop of inspiration the Muse doth lay in the mouth of the poet so much closer the rocky, sirens' songs seek entrance into his doom".

Pollock, when asked about the meaning of GS, replied: "John Graham will know what it means". As both men are dead the secret goes with them but my reading of GS only returns the reader to another leviathan work of art in which the clearest delineation* of Guardians of the Secret was clairvoyantly penned by one Herman Melville, ninety-odd years before Pollock laid brush to this mystery.

 

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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