Arachnae explore the visual language of meaning


By processing visual signs we arrive at meaning. Like words in a sentence, visual signs come together to become visual language—a language rich in complexity, metaphoric and referential, as well as purely formal: color, shape, line, texture.

The origins and development of visual signs, and the many ways these signs are coded through culture, and then used in support of systems, constructs, and power hierarchies, has been an inspiration for my art. My journey as other through society’s normative construct (class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) has revealed to me contradictions, particularly those that are set up as binary oppositions, that have influenced my research.

More specifically let’s consider the spider. In my previous work, I explored my interest in visual metaphors representing systems and networks with mythological characters from my own Greek ethnic background (characters which are also often relatable cross-culturally) such as Medusas and Hydras through re-appropriation and abstraction. With Arachnae, this exploration continues.

These abstracted spiders explore the creature of nature but also the recurring subject in culture: visual, literary, folk, and mythology. While the spider often inspires phobic and even threatening reactions, it nonetheless serves as a frequent symbol and embodiment of the protector and the creator of networks. An interesting variance of symbolism and relationships to the spider exists through different periods and ethnicities: The spider weaves symbolic webs across culture.

Often represented as female (but not always), the spider can be maternal (as in Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture, or Native American mythology); it can be industrious (as in the male African Anansi or the German Christmas spiders); it can be hopeful and inspiring (as in the beloved American novel Charlotte’s Web); and it endures and is celebrated as the protector (for shielding a fugitive David from Saul in the Jewish tradition as well as concealing Mohamed in the Cave of Thor in the Muslim faith).

The ancient Greek myth of Arachne is of particular interest to me, having been inspired by the metaphors in Greek mythology in my previous work,but also as the myth places the spider (the master weaver Arachne) as a benign victim of her (possibly deserved) pride; a lesson that is timely in the pursuit of grand ideals, on a personal level in the micro (weaving the many threads into a single piece of art), and on the macro (with human projects such as the United Nations bringing many nations together for the common good). It should be noted here, that in the Navajo weaving tradition, moderation is encouraged as a cure against the “excess of craft.”

Equally relevant, the industrious spider weaves systems of webs and creates networks which capture and hold us together. This is an additional point of interest as I have long been fascinated with the systems that we have created in order to communicate, connect and understand. Intertwining systems of ethnicity, class, race, kinship, gender, sexual orientation, and even taste permeate and influence our perception and the manner in which we choose to navigate through smaller or larger networks in order to forge our identity and sense of belonging. Even the “digital revolution” has embraced these metaphors (“web”, “net”, “on line”) constructing networks of complexities and meaning through the dispersement of information. The necessarily advanced perceptions required to appropriately navigate these systems, as we forge our identity, are an ongoing examination in my work.

Physically, the shapes of the spiders are abstracted and simplified, continuing my ongoing interest with how essential, simple visual elements (the circle and the line) come together to create complexity; this in itself a metaphor for existence. (For a fuller exegesis of this concept please see my thesis “Meta-Perceptions: The Metaphysics of Dots and Lines.”)

The bodies represent the circle, and the legs represent the lines. In addition, the circle and the line, these distilled visual elements, are also represented in the choice of the fabric designs. Whether plaid or prints, the fabrics represent coded meaning and are never arbitrary.

The works are made of layers of steel, foam, fabric, zippers and plastic, each contributing additional metaphors for consideration. Steel and foam juxtaposing the interplay of hard and soft power, “traditionally” masculine and feminine. Fabric in particular is rich in metaphor beyond gender, with records showing even Aristophanes and Plato using fabric as metaphor for “construct.” Verbal metaphors abound, “abric of society” being but one example. Fabric’s function of covering—at times to protect and other times to hide, or to identify—offers additional metaphors. Even the essence of fabric’s materiality, the weaving of thread, alludes to organization, grids, constructs, and systems.

This allusion is further explored in the repeated use of plaid (a network of simple lines of color coming together to form a complex visual system) and other “coded” prints, patchwork (yet another form of constructed organization), and even symbolic tartans, in this case an examination of Anglocentric identity construct. The colors separate and merge finding differences as you zoom in and commonalities as you zoom out. Layering is also metaphoric as one needs to see and imagine deeper constructs, that can either divide or unite much like the zippers. The last layer, plastic, further suggests human creation/intervention. This chemically created, artificial material is a product of human artifice/intervention, and it encapsulates the piece protecting it as it allows us to examine it.

By challenging notions of art versus craft, masculine versus feminine, humor versus phobia or apprehension, the Arachnae invite the viewer to enter their complex web of meaning and visually explore, imagining perceptual networks and possibilities.

There are many hands involved in the making of these Arachne. The ambitiousness of the physicality of the works necessitates a productive, and at times creative, collaboration. There are three studios: two in Mott Haven (one mine), and one in Williamsburg. Of course the actualization of these works is my responsibility: Concept, design, procurement of materials, direction, management, financing, promotion, documentation—these are all my responsibilities. The “hard” part of the fabrication, the steel armature, is made with help in my pal Mike Conlon’s shop, Caliper, in Williamsburg. I’ve been working with Mike for 25 years . The “soft” part of the fabrication is made in Mott Haven, by the superbly gifted Estevez, whose shop makes the fabric and plastic assemblage possible…