Out of the Desert He Rises: Distress and Macri’s Leaven’s Freedom
by Kenneth Radu

Out of the sandstorm, out of the whirlwind he rises and then he pauses in the midst of seeing through veils of illusion, for he sees what we cannot, and he sees what we wish to see, but we behold him resting out of the maelstrom. Although blinded by sand, we are as dust unless we open ourselves to the revelations of art, to the agonies of desire, and the unfathomable chasms within our hearts.

The colouring in Leaven’s Freedom is brown, it’s gold, it’s sand, it’s umber, and it’s bronze. The unseen body has risen from the desert, the eyes cast downward gazing at what has been left behind, foreseeing what is to come as if he is a prophet of the desert, as if he has lived previous lives and will live again. His mind is weary, his mind is heavy, and his mind is dark and crowded with all we desire. He understands our desires, the unspoken words caught up in the whirlwinds of sandstorms, and we are left bereft because we cannot attain what we long for, and we can only long for the unattainable, knowing Macri, that demon artist, is also the artist of many guises and the prophet of longing.

His familiar inclination of the head: how many times do we see it in his portraits? How often have I lingered over that pose, carrying the image in my imagination as I board a train or plane, or cross streets, or enter galleries? And the mascara, the shadowy eyes, the unshaven cheeks, the nose and lips as if sculpted. Is there a dusty angel here, fallen from heaven, or a desert demon who has clawed up out of a fissure? The hair, the bend of the head, the symbolic necklace, because what we cannot fully see or understand we symbolize. A Macri portrait is often a portrait of multiple meanings layered with our conceptions and preconceptions and maybe even deceptions, a portrait of our own self-deceptions as we approach the art and impose, yes, impose or project our fantasies and emotions on the image.

Oh that marvelous hair, as if swept by a wind of sand, a strange commingling of wavelets and angles ending in horn tips, upswept in the suggestion of a bun, a tribal bun, the hirsute virility of desert marauders, or Canaanite warriors. Discombobulated, I grasp after analogies and similarities as if they are signposts of safety or intellectual life jackets designed to prevent my submersion in a tempestuous sea of feelings. So, I think of the Moses of Michelangelo clasping stone tablets, mysterious “horns” on his head, noticeable above a mass of vigorous hair and which have inspired much commentary (famously Freud’s). So, I think of Chagall’s dream-like Prophet Jeremiah, and I think of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s rendition of The Prophet Malachi, and reading the Bible I think of Elijah who appears out of nowhere to answer God’s call, is fed by crows in the wilderness, and denounces the believers of Baal. All hefty with hair. I think of Baal, intolerable to Jehovah, and other hairy, alternative gods, and Assyrian protective spirits with curled beards and locks, and Samson’s crowning glory before Delilah, and the magical properties of masculine hair and the detailed attention Macri pays to it in Leaven’s Freedom.

Moses, Prophet Jeremiah, The Prophet Malachi

A man so cross-thatched and sunburned by confrontations in the wilderness of the spirit, or the desert mountain paths of exaltation that he has come down, somewhat the worse for wear, for we cannot climb the peaks of exaltation without experiencing a weariness of soul, an exhaustion of the heart. Look how melancholy this portrait is, sadness not from depression but knowledge. “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow“ (Ecclesiastes I:18, KJV). This is not a shining silvery kind of gentle knight, more a prophet speechless from witnessing and participating in the heights of human achievement and imagination, art and science, as well as the depths of human turpitude, passions and proclivities, orgies and orgasms in the desert dunes. The artist contains all polarities in his art.

He does not come speaking on behalf of anyone who will come after him as if he is a kind precursor, a kind of John the Baptist. His speech consists of the words any viewer puts on his tongue; it does not speak unless it speaks with our interpretations. Nothing is more silent than a Macri portrait, and Leaven’s Freedom is noisy with the volubility of unheard languages. We hear in the silence whatever language we speak, the unspoken desires and mute blasphemies as we seek to embrace the dusty head and wash away the sands of sorrow, rake our fingers through the hair, and search for sparks of revelation in his dark down-turning eyes.

Even without the title, that directional sign, I see something biblical about this portrait, something akin to prophets, but the title leads me inevitably to the Bible and Jehovah’s commandment, for example, in Exodus: “Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread” (KJV, 23.18); or from Leviticus this injunction: “No meat offering, which ye shall bing unto the Lord, shall be made with leaven: for ye shall burn no leaven … in any offering of the Lord made by fire” (KJV, 2.11), or this admonition that leaven is intrinsically unholy and the necessity of purging out the old leaven: “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (KJV, I Corinthians 5.8). I am reminded of a witty novel, Leaven of Malice, by the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. A curious assumption or admonition here: if we rise, if we consult our own wishes, worship another god, we do so maliciously, malevolently, and therefore must suppress instincts and inclinations lest we fall prey to deceit and lewdness, mayhem and murder, and other various sins. Perhaps the sabotage of laugher: the personal and social dangers of levity, as akin to the French lever as it is to leavening.

Why freedom: what does Leaven’s Freedom mean in this context? The portrait of the head is somewhat framed by brown drapery, suggestive of sand stone and runnels down a mountainside worn by water sprung from rock. It’s the head of a man whose body we do not see, but we rarely see a full body in a Macri portrait. As an artist he is primarily interested in the eyes and the mind, and so reveals paradoxes and psychology, desires and dreams, ideas and cultural history, on the many, dramatic faces he constructs. He delves into our intellect and arouses our feelings, and dares to make us known to ourselves because like the prophets of old he speaks to everyone, burdened with terrible knowledge.

Leaven’s Freedom

Despite the “freedom” in the title, the portrait is that of a man contained, not a denizen of our world, not a citizen of the here and now preoccupied with quotidian banalities, but possibly a man, if man he be, emergent from caves and depths therein, adroit as a demon. The unseen body allows me to speculate. Perhaps the feet are cloven. There is no sunshine, but the aftereffects of sun so bright that it has darkened the eyes, imbued the skin, and seared the hair, threaded its heat with sand from the desert. The light comes not from the hills but from the chasms. He has scooped wild honey from hollow trees, eaten briars and locusts, and he is not satiated. The more I look, the more I feed. And yet, alas, I am not satiated.

There is such technical mastery in a Macri portrait that all parts, all aspects constitute an indivisible coherence, a unity of vision, and many portraits possess elements of previous works: here, the lighting, the folds of cloth, the hair, the eyes, the necklace, the skin: the shadows on the skin, the inexpressive face, which contains the expressions I or any viewer wishes to see there. He does not smile. A smile limits meaning, narrows the image, and is too personal a statement.

Macri defies mere allegory. His portraits are multi-faceted, paradoxical and contrary, and too layered: it is unrewarding to say this portrait represents that idea, since the portrait contains too many “thats” or ideas to fit easily into any mechanical allegory. Leaven’s Freedom is not a mathematical equation, but a human complexity, just as a viewer’s response can often be contradictory and complex, and yet remain true.

A devil, a daimon, a sand spirit, a creature outside the laws of the land, formed on the other side of light, in alien territory in which we are all residents, pre-existent, mythical and therefore real. I have mentioned feet, and recall the shocked Othello looking down at the feet of Iago who manipulate him into such irrationality that he murders Desdemona. He cannot believe Iago, the man he trusted, is entirely human:

I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable.
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

Why do I wander from imagining a prophet in the desert, burdened by God’s tablets, to an amoral presence? Does Macri’s portrait suggest that leaven’s freedom leads to unrestricted desire and transcends moral categories? We wish the bread to rise and yet God demanded that his people remember their travails and sorrows by eating unleavened bread. Flattened by divine ordinance, yet secretly inflated by ego and yearning, and the urge to countermand, I stray off the righteous path to worship Baal who may well induce me to frenzy.

Oh, this portrait. The prophet puzzles me, I am wild with wonder, I am fixated on fierceness, I am smitten by subterfuge, and I am daunted by the daimon. Oh, man of the desert, prophetic man of the dust, to ashes and dust we return, but you return, ever returning, weary with the weight of mortality, suffused by the ecstasy of the unbidden and forbidden, and averting the gaze of your followers who see themselves in your hidden eyes.

There is a hardness to this portrait, the hardness of angularity, the hardness of rock, as if I should not trifle with desires and fantasies, for the man in this portrait may well enact them, may well catch me up in a sandstorm of lust and swirl us into oblivion, or like a dark deity cleave the earth and open up a chasm, and take me down in a rapture of freedom, a descent to liberating destruction. Rather than being an old Testament prophet like Elijah, doing Jehovah’s work, denouncing and encouraging the massacre of the adherents of Baal, the man in Macri’s portrait may well be the prophet of what has been destroyed, a priest of pagan alternatives, who has fought against invaders and either escaped or lost.

And there is softness, too, beneath the layers of decrees and dust. Exhaustion and depletion are etched in the lineaments of the face. I feel a kind of compassion for the human side of this portrait, for all my talk of demons and divinity. I desire to wipe the dirty brow with a wet cloth and say, come, let me wash away the agony and the horror, and make you new again. Apprehension stays my hand. I look again. In the severe quietude of this portrait, in the monumental stoicism of the face, I also see a creature of the forge, a portrait of an earthy man of sinew and muscle, a handsome Hephaestus, who has gripped fire and iron, who has hammered steel into submission to his purpose. Simmering with profound knowledge of darkness on the other side of spiritual light, he is not evil, but certainly he is what we have allowed ourselves to feel and know. Having gained sustenance from fierce fires that could sear my soul and blast me into ecstasy, I hear a voice in the wilderness: stay away, stay away, and I hear another beckoning and contrary voice: come, come to the fiery forge.

Leaven’s Freedom: yeast is a miraculous organism. Inert unless put in the right circumstances, and then it burgeons, bubbles, breaks free of its hard casing, energizing the flour: the rising the rising the rising, the overflowing, and it needs to be beaten down, but left alone it rises and rises and overflows again until it has exhausted its limits, its potential. Implicit in leavening is the process of breaking down old structures in order to create new, the dependence upon decomposition in order to rise. The very idea of putrefaction is abhorrent biblically, so connected with corruption, so connected with sin and violations, the puffery of human vanity and lust, and above all the spiritual audacity to disobey.

In much of his art, the cellular structure of things and the invisible forces of physical reality fascinate Macri. Of course, the art is metaphorical, comprising and combining a host of associations and ideas, and it’s up to his viewers like me to apply the metaphor as truthfully as we can without violating the context and particular genius of this portrait. It’s not a portrait of a saccharine Lancelot in shining armour on his way to a fair damsel in distress. There is no shining knight here. This is not calendar art. This is not a religious icon, however biblical the associations I make, however much I have resorted to Old Testament analogies, and Leaven’s Freedom is not a picture of a conventional prophet or holy man.

If he emerges from the whirlwind or clambers down the mountainside with rod and staff, and “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” his rod and staff offer no comfort. I cannot adhere to them for the safety of my soul. Comfort is a form of dying. There is quiescence, yes, but there is a contained restlessness in the portrait: a singeing of hungers, a searing of desires, a confinement of rebellion in flesh and spirit. Above all I am distressed: distressed by the image of Macri’s Leaven’s Freedom and its myriad implications; distressed by the demonic or divine demiurge; distressed by the darkness; distressed by shadows of the merciless blacksmith and his forge; distressed by my tumultuous feelings and disoriented mind as I gaze into the hidden eyes of this otherworldly man who has risen out of the desert and silently proclaims what I long to hear.

Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, and Earthbound (DC Books Canada). He is currently working on a collection of new stories.

Out of the Desert He Rises: Distress and Macri’s Leaven’s Freedom
Essay by Kenneth Radu - October 2016