Mythology is an expressive modality common to humanity: Throughout human history, human societies have shown the inability to live without myth, which is to say without an explanation, through story, of human origins, of the origins of each thing. Myth gives meaning. Not only has mythology helped ward off chaos, but it is, as Nietzsche observed, "an image of the world shortened." We must take myth metaphorically. And yet it is archetypal. Myth has a basic function that is psychological. Of course the gods are dead but they live in our psyche -- they are metaphors for our psyche.
In our ever shifting society, our references and our ways of communicating are in flux. Certain thinkers, following Roland Barthes, consider myths too archaic, too far from our reality. They suggest myths have lost their relevance to explain our contemporary world. For them, myths are just stories disconnected from our emotional and psychic life. So why would contemporary artists choose to represent scenes from Western mythology? What do we make of work that re-appropriates scenes from Greek and Roman mythology? Many artists, following psychoanalysts Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman, suggest that what the gods of mythology represent is alive, and that we are not so different from the ancient people.
Mythic figures convey great energy -- often a destructive one. They also symbolize, according to Jung, a superhuman libido with multiple faces. This libido is not exclusively sexual -- it is also life instinct, a will of being. The artists who represent Greek mythology in paintings, photographs, videos or installation illuminate hidden worlds and instincts. Their artworks display interpretations of a specific myth and reveal their projections on it. The works return to us stories explaining certain truths, stories that encourage us to understand a personal world, and more extensively, our own world. Venus, Icarus, Narcissus and Pan, figures closely associated with psychological states, are poignantly, most frequently represented.
The story of Narcissus, the beautiful young man who spurned love and died as a result, inspired Michael Borosky in Queer Narcissus, Tracy Silverberg in Narcissus, Frank Moore's Black Narcissus and John Lesnick, Narcissus. The Goddess Nemesis made Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection: he stayed transfixed watching his own reflection in a pool of water and let himself die. In each work, the mirrored reflection is eloquently depicted. In Silverberg's representation, the nudity of the model conveys fragility. A similar ethereality exists with Moore's Narcissus, who seems to be a hybrid of Narcissus and Icarus, a tiny human with wings and a "kafkaian" insect reflection. In Lesnick's installation, the materiality of the bricks reinforces the sense that Narcissus reinforces the immobility of Narcissus, while the fluidity of the water disappears totally. In pain, and ultimately in death, Narcissus discovers that he is alienated by his own image. There is no otherness with Narcissus -- his self does not reach totality because he never experiences alterity. At the end, he proves mortal, because he is deprived of the one.
Pan, God of Shepherds and Flocks, is often depicted as a satyr with a reed pipe, two horns and a hairy body. Richard Treitner's photograph, Pan's Pipe literally brings to life this God of fertility, of unbridled male sexuality, and of sexual desire. Whereas Elliott Linwood's Citizen Pan works in a more symbolic or conceptual vein and, recalling Beuys, Pan remains in shadow. Similarly, Chet Holcomb's Centaur suggests human impulsiveness and, though we only see a face and shoulder, a certain fragility.
Tim Jocelyn in his Resigning Icarus and Silverberg in Icarus present the son of Daedalus and a slave (that Minos kept with his father imprisoned in the labyrinth to punish Daedalus for helping the hero Theseus kill the Minotaur and who, thanks to Daedalus's intelligence, escaped their prison). Deadalus builds, with wax, string and feathers, wings for his son and himself to fly. Freed and back home, Icarus became so exhilarated by flight that he ignored his father's warning and flew too high. The sun melted the wax of his wings and he fell into the sea and drowned. Silverberg, in focusing on the shoulder and the wing, reveals Icarus' fragility and reinforces his human condition. Recklessness and excessiveness are less dangerous when controlled.
Venus's birth famously represented by Sandro Botticelli at the end of the 15th century with a naked Venus coming out of a large shell in the middle of the composition mildly inspired Frank Moore's Birth of Venus. In his version, a male naked body with long dyed blond hair and makeup comes out of what looks like a gigantic umbilical cord. Similar humor exists in Mike Parker's Birth of Venus. Parker places his face on a giant skate fish surfing a wave and places his parents' faces on each side of the composition while "Surfrealist" hovers above their heads. We cannot help noticing the very classical representation of parents transported directly from the 1950s. For his part, Michael Bedlin in Big City Life transcends the classical representation. Venus is presented as a headless goddess centered in the composition and rising above and among a collage of other mythical references like the gilded calf, eyes, city and country landscapes. The goddess seems to embrace the city, and the world. John Morrisson subtly entitles Venus -- a photograph representing a lotus flower rising from the water. The lotus flower moves from the earth to the air, through water, and like Venus, symbolizes purity, fertility and beauty. Daniel Vasquez depicts, in Venus and Cupid, the god of erotic love and beauty in a scene where the two figures are shown together. Here, love and beauty collide with eros. Ascetics say that beauty is a devilish trap: Beauty by itself makes tolerable the need of chaos, violence and indignity that is the root of love.
Those myths depict and discuss love, death and desire. They are alive in our contemporary psyche and their influence still reigns in our modern situations. As Hilmann, the notorious psychoanalyst, wrote, "mythology is a psychology of antiquity. Psychology is a mythology of modernity" or "psychology shows myths in modern dress and myths show our deep psychology in ancient dress." Hilmann suggests that the psyche spontaneously projects myths -- or produces modern dreams, fantasies and experiences similar to ancient myths. We find echos in today's life. Myth gives resonance to the little melody of life. They are more than a colorful way of describing psychological states. They actually describe what it is like to be in those states.
Finally, I read these works as self-portraits, emotional and filled with expressionistic symbols. The artists' self-representations of myth unveil its correlation with human experiences and osmosis with psychic experiences. The artists transcend death, love and melancholy in their creations and remind us that ineluctably we proceed from archetypes. We are those stories -- the artists remind us. We can recognize ourselves, both our psychic and human experiences, in those tales where the past, present and future converge, and where the subjective and the objective merge.