Serpents in my Dreams: Adamo Macri’s Snake Portraits by Kenneth Radu



I

Adamo Macri, the multi-media artist, is a fascinating snake slithering among the flora in my imaginary and real gardens, coiling in the undergrowth, and shedding one identity to reveal another. Most of us have a physiological and cultural reaction to snakes, something the artist Macri recognizes fully in layered portrayals of appearance and meaning as varied and silent as the serpent. Margaret Atwood’s poem “Bad Mouth” reminds us: Alone among the animals/the snake does not sing.” Of course, images do not make a sound, but when I speak of silence in a Macri portrait I refer to the silence of my inner speech and secret yearning. In a series of intense and “silent” portraits, Macri sloughs off a plethora of masks and skins, knowing that viewers who want to see more mentally undress his purpose and divest themselves of inhibitions. Mesmerized by four specific works of art, Corporate Assets, Snake, Hinterland, and Phenotype Bardo, I submit to the eye of the artist in order to see aspects of myself.

I rarely have nudes recumbent in my garden, which is not to say I don’t wish to enjoy déjeuner sur l'herbe, but snakes do wend their circuitous way in my perennial beds and vegetable patches. Although beneficial to gardens, my body shudders with an illogical frisson of fear if I inadvertently touch a striped common garter while weeding or transplanting. Once, swimming in a cool lake in August, I foolishly panicked when my legs kicked and flailed against a northern water snake. Zoological facts help us distinguish between what is harmful and what is not. Correcting misconceptions, they still do not account for emotion and culturally generated irrationality. And so I go to art depicting mythological apprehensions and mirroring both public and private beliefs, a tradition of art to which the “snakes” of Adamo Macri belong.

Perusing these specific Macri portraits, I seek corroboration through history and pick out examples from a grab bag. That way I don’t feel as if I am staring into the abyss alone, if Nietzsche’s metaphor applies here. Well, I am making it apply because I get dizzy standing on the edge with Macri’s faces overlooking my thoughts like the flute player, if flute player it is, in Rousseau’s The Snake Charmer. I have always been drawn to the eerie eroticism in that particular painting. Yes, the musician of silent music awakens and controls the snakes in the canvas, not least of which is the serpent wound about the tree, an obvious allusion to the Garden of Eden. The canvas is laden with sexual lassitude and intimations, a state of half-dream and half-waking, not dissimilar from my own state of mind as I look and dream and write. The implications of The Snake Charmer are visualized in Rousseau’s last painting, The Dream, wherein a recumbent nude listens to a dark musician in the midst of a calm jungle-like but still Edenic scene painted with curving, undulating lines like those of snakes.


The Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau

I remember Dickinson’s poem wherein the persona confronts “a narrow fellow in the grass,” and experiences “ a tighter breathing/And zero at the bone.” Snakes and gardens go together like apples and trees, desire and dreams, fears and fantasy. Unless we are herpetologists, ophiophilists, snake charmers, reptile eaters, or citizens of a snake tolerant society, we try to avoid snakes altogether. And yet, people pay money to see such films as Anaconda, or Snakes on a Plane, if only to titillate their terror, so to speak. It is rather unfair of us to project our own cultural anxieties on to the snake, most of whom prefer to slide about their business without interference from bipeds. True, we should be wary of venomous snakes. We should hesitate before the mighty python. As a serpent in these portraits, Macri poses no physical threat; on the edge of the precipice I nonetheless tremble with psychological unease in the midst of aesthetic pleasure.

This revulsion toward snakes may have existed in primordial times, I don’t know, but the story of Adam and Eve in Eden is arguably the progenitor of our disgust with the serpent, at least in the West. A devil in disguise, that insidious and seductive creature probably walked on legs before he crawled on his belly. Disobedient to God’s command and their subsequent loss of innocence, not to mention exile from paradise, the human couple is permanently punished, and so is Lucifer. He must henceforth be confined to the underground and forever endure a reputation for cold malice, dangerous impulses and sexual license, suggested in William Blake’s the Temptation and Fall of Eve wherein the serpent feeds the apple directly into Eve’s mouth.


The Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake

That archetypal scene under the apple tree has led to great dramas of passion depicted in countless works of art; for example, Salvador Viniegra’s explicit The First Kiss of Adam and Eve. In that somewhat kitschy canvas the transformed devil winds its lengthy way around Adam’s arm as Eve’s luxuriant tresses barely cover Adam’s genitals. Paul Gauguin paints a reluctant Eve squatting by the apple tree, refusing to hear what the serpent has to say in Eve, Don’t Listen to the Liar. I do believe, however, that the snake has spoken the truth, speaking as silently as a Macri portrait. Satan wants us disobedient and disrobed, God prefers us clothed and compliant. We are free to choose, and dress or undress for the occasion.


The First Kiss of Adam and Eve, Salvador Viniegra


II

When Adamo Macri so pointedly labels one of his portraits Snake, the picture deftly reflecting the title, or vice versa, I am inclined to see not only what the artist presents, but also what I feel and project onto the image. My cultural and individual attitudes towards snakes, as well as my admiration of Macri’s complex art, conjoin to filter my complex perceptions. Like everyone else, I have not grown up in a vacuum. When I reflect and think, especially about Adamo Macri’s multi-textured and multi-layered work, I carry with me whatever I have learned, felt, read, seen, and imagined. Rousseau’s snakes also exist in the real and imaginary saurian nest, and so does that suspicious reptile in all paintings of the First Garden.

If there is any truth to the theory, popularized but not created by Freud, I am affected like everyone else by unconscious wishes, just as much as I am by conscious decisions. The same must be true for the artist. When we wrestle with snakes in dreams, or write about them in poems, or paint them engaging parts of our body, more than meets the eye or genitalia is going on. Looking at Macri’s “snake” art, I slip into a dream-like state of acutely sharpened senses. Freud may well be correct in his insistence on the phallic significance of snakes, but insofar as I give credence to theories of the unconscious mind, Macri’s work reflects Jung’s theory of the symbolic import of the snake as much as it does Freud’s, perhaps more so. Carl Jung, the poet-psychologist of the archetype, believes that the unconscious insinuates itself in the form of a snake if the conscious mind is afraid of the compensating tendency of the unconscious. Therein lies one of Macri’s sources of poetic inspiration and strength: the tension between conscious and unconscious; between what we logically surmise and what we fear to acknowledge; between surface appearance and layers hidden beneath; and between the portraits Macri presents and the pictures I, or we, make of them.

I cannot look at Macri’s Snake for long without drawing upon the relationship between snakes and sex. I don’t mean this in any exclusively Freudian phallocentric sense but I include the rich and complex range of erotic imagery in the history of art and culture. Dreaming of a snake may suggest repressed sexuality, Jungian compensation, or it may be no more than a meaningless physiological activity of neurons and synapses during sleep, a fragmentation and rearrangement of personal contacts with and feelings about actual snakes. More broadly speaking, serpent dreams indicate that I am a member of a civilization with ambivalent attitudes towards the reptile.


Snake

Alert to my own limitations, both fascinated and repelled, I try to give the serpent his due. When I come across a simple garter snake occasionally and admire its green and gold skin, that little frisson raising the hairs on the back of my neck, notwithstanding, I know my response is culturally conditioned. It does not frighten me away nor does it arouse sexual desire. A garter snake in my garden is not a satanic serpent coiled around a fruit tree. I will not turn to stone if I look at it, although I might share Dickinson’s chill at the bone. My apple trees are more infested with worms than snakes. On You Tube, that warehouse of culture and eccentricities, I saw a video of a young woman kissing a King Cobra on the mouth, although no apple tree or divine rage is evident. The extent of my knowledge of good and evil does not increase when I bite into the flesh of an apple. Influenced by historical and religious propaganda, I remind myself not to act like the persona in D.H. Lawrence’s poem, The Snake, who throws a stone at a reptile: I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!/ I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

Nor should we burden the snake with our heavy breathing, even if some of us might pant over a Macri portrait. Sometimes it’s not about the allegorical prick or penetration at all. This is not the place to explore the role of snakes in cultures around the world, from aboriginal Australia to Africa to the Americas. But it’s helpful, though, to balance our collective view with that of other places, other times. I don’t, for example, think of either commerce or communication or good health when thinking of snakes. Yet, the image of the caduceus (originally kerykeion in classical Greek), the winged staff entwined by two snakes, should be as much in my mind as the Garden of Eden. Not only is the caduceus a sign of Hermes, messenger of the ancient Greek gods and, appropriately enough, the god of dreams among other functions, but it has also become a symbol of medicine. Even if the Rod of Asclepius only has one snake, the idea remains the same. The snake is no evil or sexual creature here, but a potent agent for well-being.


Kerykeion - Rod of Asclepius

There is also the heroic and tragic story of the Trojan priest Laocoõn and His Sons, all crushed and bitten to death by serpents sent by the gods sent to inflict unimaginable suffering for reasons depending upon whatever version of the story one reads. The sculpture now placed in the Vatican doesn’t lead me to lust for coitus. Caravaggio’s terrifying head of Medusa doesn’t induce la petite mort. A Macri “snake” portrait, therefore, provides no reason to imagine suffering, although it would be disingenuous to say I entirely escape the sweet agony of lascivious thoughts. Whatever scenarios I concoct, being squeezed to physical death is not one of them, not even in the throes of ecstasy.


Laocoön and His Sons

Snakes in Hinduism have a wider spiritual import than they do in the West. The serpent, sometimes erotic, is not perceived as demonic as it is in Christianity. The Minoan snake goddess, a statue of whom was discovered by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, holds a writhing snake in either hand. She signifies hearth and home, which implies fertility and children, so we reach a compromise there: domestic delights rather than satanic sex. The Church would approve, as did the pagans. Macri’s snake portraits move me in a different direction altogether, far away from family fun and frolicking children.

Untrammeled passion was a danger to social order, demonstrated by stories about Maenads romping in Grecian fields and occasionally tearing a man to shreds. Satyrs did not make vows of chastity or monogamy. Ares committed adultery with Aphrodite. The gods did as they sexually pleased; ordinary mortals had to take care. Poor Pasiphaë, to name one, did not. The paradox in Macri’s art partly arises from the fact that he trammels his passion in order to unleash ours. As there is no lifeguard available except our discretion or inhibitions, we engage at our own risk. The longer I stare at these portraits, the more I am transferred from the ordinary into a mythical realm, as real as whatever my mind contains.

III

To select and regard these four portraits as a unified quartet is not merely arbitrary or eccentric. On one level this recognizes a consistency in Macri’s style and vision, a repetition of motifs and poses. It states the obvious that Macri displays a genius for disguises (i.e. alternate identities) and layering, often striking similar poses in many pictures, and being painstakingly careful in the choice accoutrements and pictorial lighting. On another level, the one that matters most to this particular viewer, is the association I make in my own mind. I am hot under the psychological collar. Just as Macri amusingly loosens the tie in one of the portraits, Corporate Assets, I loosen my conventions, as well as the conventional ties that bind. Yes, the artist is playing with the standard uniform of the corporate employee and mentality, imbuing the portrait with a satiric edge. I bind and blind myself, however, if I don’t also strip off general associations to get to the bone.


Corporate Assets

If readers will forgive my pedantry, the word corporate itself originates from the Latin corpus, the body, and corporare, to form into a body, which gives us corporation, and so on. Associating the word exclusively with high finance and capitalism is only part of the truth of this portrait. More than money can be “incorporated.” A Macri face implies or “incorporates” many “bodies,” including the body of our or my fantasies. The assets he alludes to in this one picture are taken up in a different context and thereby altered in other pictures. Being honest about my reactions, the unbidden flaring of desire like the flash of the serpent’s tongue, I cannot help but feel that the artist renders what the body feels and fleshes out what the mind conceives. With the passage of time appearances become more and more layered with experience and memory. Real and metaphorical snakes surround us all, whether we see them or not.

Macri begins the process of undressing the corporate body, and exposing repressed identities. By undressing he does not reveal nudity per se, which is all too easy these days, but other personae and other levels of being, other “corporate” assets distinct from business and finance. Yes, he draws attention to the corporate suit, which the character in this particular portrait is eager to rip off. The suited mind breaks free from daily routine and wants to enter another dimension of reality. The suit itself is an integral part of the structure of the portrait, and Macri is sensitive to the sculptural qualities of cloth. If this were only a picture of a corporate individual momentarily breaking free, Macri would not have gone to such great artistic pains to fold in other ideas. They reside in the face; they are present in the loosened tie; the colouring, angularity, pose and intensity -- all collectively strike zero at the bone.

Thus the portrait Corporate Assets gains immeasurable power when placed next to other seemingly unrelated portraits like Snake and Hinterland. When I exam and feel intensely, the relationships hit home as surely as the asp stings. I remember that Cleopatra, famous for sexual hijinks, is often referred to as the serpent of the Nile, and she applies the venomous viper to her breast in order to die. Before death she has been remembering her passionate love for Antony, and I believe that her death is a kind of ultimate sexual climax; to die is also a Shakespearean expression for orgasm --- la petite mort.

Macri incorporates correlations between eros and the snake, between the snake and orgasm, between orgasm and death, between death and regeneration, and between regeneration and transformation into any one of multiple identities. The portraits are impregnated with masks and skins put on and taken off, all affected by the hues of loss and gain acquired with time. I can’t help but feel, and this is only a cellular sensation and not a logical proposition, that Macri has created and invited me into an alternate, mythological kingdom where I can escape ordinary time and be whatever I wish to become with his full participation, as if dream and reality commingle. The serpent lures me and also guides the way, encouraging me to lose my innocence in order to acquire wisdom. The snake coils and uncoils and leads me to mysterious thresholds, for Macri is an artist of exits and entrances, leaving it to the viewers to open and shut doors.

IV

Macri’s Corporate Assets acquires considerable depth from its rigorously controlled colour scheme, stone grey hues, the variations of sand on a cloudy day, and subtly lit black with the exception of the open-necked white shirt, a vivid contrast. The black tie draws attention to itself by disarray, its movement repeated in the fold of the shirt and the crease in the suit’s right shoulder. Triangular like a serpent’s, the head is topped by a distinctly non-corporate hairstyle that looks as if it has been ruffled at the back either from sleep or by scraping through an underground tunnel. The hair shaved down to the skin on the sides, it meets a dark triangle of make-up over the forehead, its inverted apex nesting between the black and flaring eyebrows. The forwardly inclined face looks unclean, besmirched, unshaven, and even the nose has been coloured as part of the overall earthy effect.

There is a subtle hint of another dimension or element in the aquamarine mascara. The portrait is that of a man emerging from one identity and merging into another, his appearance or conventional skin something that can be washed or sloughed off. He must break out of his restraining clothes if growth is to continue outside of the ordinary realm of experience. The snake sheds its skin, while remaining true to its inner nature. And entering into the dream induced by the portraits, I am in a state of becoming … immersed in a kind of endless foreplay.

Then I study Snake, a portrait that has writhed and coiled around my imagination ever since it first appeared. So many things to say about this image that I have spent a long time sorting them out and edging away from my opinions as if to avoid stepping on a noiseless rattler, or unprotected by inhibitions, hurling myself into the abyss of fancy. Fortunately, rattlers do not inhabit my gardens, or dreams for that matter, as my unconscious seems to prefer serpents that embrace fondly rather than poison malevolently. Or offer sage counsel like the great Kaa in Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The danger more imaginary than immediate, I grasp hold and let the ideas writhe around my body as I share in the snake charmer’s power, or the love of an ophiophilist on You Tube. Macri’s work often reminds me of other art, and that is a great accomplishment. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum and he partakes what he needs from tradition like a snake sipping water from an ancient bowl, seeking sustenance for its every-renewing body. Using contemporary devices and media, he echoes what has occurred in the past to enrich what he creates in the present. He may not share my ideas, nor do I know his intentions, unless I ask, which I do not. The answers to unasked questions lie in my feelings, knowledge, and dreams.

Edging away from the precipice, like a superannuated Alice seeking a portal into a magical kingdom, I then tumble into the tunnel in pursuit of Macri’s snake portraits. My understanding enters the netherworld wherein, light extinguished, the only colour I see emanates from the complex skin and penetrating eyes of serpents. That being said, Macri’s portraits persuade me to enter secret and dark places, but do not confine me there. His work is not claustrophobic, quite the contrary, a sense of enclosed space notwithstanding. I should be terrified because there are psychologically dangerous aspects of Macri’s art. They are rarely blatant, always intimated, and nothing as overt as El Greco’s Laocoon. With strange, elongated figures encircled by serpents, the turbulence on earth matched by the turbulence of Heaven, it’s a canvas of threatening sinuosity. Its Mannerist technique intensifies the shock. In all my imaginings about Macri’s art, I don’t expect to die, at least not in physical sense, because the symbolic underground is not a stifling enclosure, a grave, but an exit to alternative visions and delights. Going down is a paradoxical means to rising above.


Laocoon, El Greco

Like El Greco and other artists, Macri uses a restricted palate again to superb effect. The corporate man in Corporate Assets having divested himself of his suit and now appears in Snake, if not in his full glory, at least intimating more to see of the mostly nude torso with its apparent muscularity. Is it saying too much to speak of Italian Renaissance sculptures of the male figure as influencing my view of the male body, that the sensuous lines of Macri’s shoulders and biceps recall Donatello’s bronze David in the Uffizi Gallery, or Michelangelo’s iconic statue? And behind them the classic Grecian physiques? I am being fanciful, I know, but I like to re-iterate Macri’s use of sculpture in his photography.

Instead of monumentality, he focuses on a feature, highlights a part embodying the whole, thereby creating a memorable presence. What impresses me even more, aside from the overall colouring, is the single, serpent eye in Snake, almost glaring in its intensity. If I didn’t know better, I would cower before malocchio, the evil eye of Italian superstition. The hair, the mask-like face, and the shawl patterned with sinuous dark forms and thrown over one defined shoulder draw me closer to the silent figure. The cloth itself is not merely costume, but inextricable from the entire portrait, a symbolic form of skin or identity, soft and flowing, earthy in tones, a softness sliding over the warm texture of skin.

V

So what does Hinterland have to do with snakes, at least how does it fit in what my sensations and thoughts about Corporate Assets and Snake? Viewed by itself, this is a remarkable portrait. It becomes more potent and resonant, however, when I consider it as the third piece of an intricately constructed quartet of images intertwined like a serpent winding among the plants of a dream garden of nightshade, lily of the valley, monkshood, all toxic plants thriving among my tenuous but life-affirming roses, ancient irises, and salubrious bee balm soothing to the soul.


Hinterland

Hinterland has much in common with the complex portrait, Memento Mori. It confirms the general view that Macri is a consistent artist with a coherent, ever- widening portrayal of character and identity residing within the corporate restrictions or “clothing” of our everyday world. Macri uses his own face to create myth as much as he shifts identities, elicits sexual desires, and manipulates forms of decay and rebirth. His portraits collectively constitute an album of ancient stories and cultural allusions rendered new while mysteriously infiltrating our own hearts and mind, and challenging our conceptions and misconceptions. I have allowed him to creep into the secret garden of my dreams the way Adam and Eve allowed Lucifer into theirs; well, God’s to be more accurate. By that I mean God’s dream, for what else was the prelapsarian Garden of Eden? The couple paid a hefty price for following their own dreams.

Our association of the serpent with the devil, with sex, with guilt and shame, and with the knowledge of good and evil curiously finds its origin in a symbolic piece of fruit. So many narratives of the expulsion from the garden, and before that a mythic war in Heaven between rebellious angels, led by Lucifer, and God’s loyal legions, according to Revelations. And the subsequent fall of the angel Lucifer, whose name means bearer of light: Bosch, Brueghel the Elder, da Vinci, Frans Floris, Rubens, Blake, all applied their brush to the story, and the list goes on to the present day. If there is a demonic or dark side to Macri’s art, and I am happy to say there is, the “Snake” portraits have more to do with jolting pleasure, divine disobedience, and personal liberation of the psyche than they do with alienation, writhing pain, or wretched banishment. If the snake dwells in the dark, it also basks in the sun; if it repels, it also entices.

One connection between Hinterland and Corporate Assets is the presence of aquamarine, which causes me to see the latter portrait as an inevitable movement towards the former, the man swathed and confined in clothes out which he must break free to allow for passage to another state of being exemplified. In a story by Paul Bowles, Allal, the young protagonist so identifies with a snake that he becomes what he beholds. He slips into the consciousness of the serpent, or the consciousness of the serpent slips into his, as if he has shed his human skin and found a way to enter another world where he ceases to be what he was, or becomes what he always was. Macri, deliberately or otherwise, moves his art and his viewers in a similar direction. Not to become creatures that crawl on the earth, but human beings who through art accept and celebrate alternate forms of existence, and experience the infinite variations of being all too human, to echo Nietzsche again. This may well be a reason why Macri names the portrait Hinterland, a word of German origin to describe land behind what we know, a place at the back of familiar terrain, the undeveloped geography inhabited by few, a location without definition and open to myriad possibilities.

Bathed in aquamarine, the head is framed by, or is emerging through greenery, possibly a symbolic representation of bush or tree. It is watery as much as it is earthy, and, yes, related to a water snake, but that may be pushing too far, straining in the skin of my own fantasy. The wreath of greenery, let’s even call it mussed-up hair growing from the scalp itself, has a spring-like quality, reminding me of gardens and trees, and by implication snakes among the boughs or flowing with the currents of my own feelings and perceptions. The atmosphere, regardless of the colouring and signs of new life, is constrained and silent, the heavily made up face well angled, with dark and expressionless lips akin to the face of a serpent.

Despite the signs of growth and spring, this is not an image of joy, but the impassivity and cool serenity of the snake. Other viewers project their own emotions on to the face and allegorize as much as I do: the Green Man of Celtic mythology, to name one, or a variation of Botticelli’s Primavera, to name another. That may explain why Macri’s portraits do not entrance us with a beaming smile. Because the artist is not remotely taking selfies in costumes of momentary interest, a smile would immediately influence and possibly skew individual responses and interpretations. If admirers see a nature deity or sexual snake or a harbinger of spring, they are doing what the art asks them to do. Whatever our personal reactions to his art, Macri remains as silent as the snake basking on a sun-heated rock, or slowly creeping out from its underground den into our private gardens.


Primavera, Sandro Botticelli

For all its mythological associations, Macri’s snake does not compel. We are not forced to eat the apple, but the world opens wide when we do. The angularity of the aquamarine; the thrusting of the head like the triangle of a serpent’s; the denuded and strikingly lit forehead, reminiscent of a Renaissance lady; the androgynous appeal of the face with its highlighted lips and dark eyes; and the somewhat shy embracing of the torso: all arouse and contribute to many conflicting feelings. The creature rising out of the green water into a wreath of green growth is moving into, or shifting, or revealing another identity beneath that mask-like overlay of the face in the portrait called Snake, and waits to be kissed like the asp applied to our lips.

VI

And then, as if the artist has struck an image out of my own imagination, or assembled an exotic serpent from my dreams, Phenotype Bardo appears: a Macri masterpiece and a visual climax of my body of thoughts. Without knowing what I was writing or where my ideas about recent portraits were going, Macri graciously allowed me an advance view of this work before he released it to the public. At first glance, I was gripped by a wave of physiological and intellectual jouissance. Prolonged study has not diminished the impact of this stunning portrait on my sensibility. It also gave me the fourth piece of my quartet, a tetralogy of excitement.


Phenotype Bardo

The title of Phenotype Bardo is biologically specific and symbolically apt. Macri’s art often embodies natural processes. Organisms in various stages of growth and decay, seeds and their implications, the cellular basis of reality, are major elements in his artistic vision as a whole. I sometimes imagine he sleeps with a biology text for a pillow, and as an artist dreams our dreams as much as he dreams his own, culling images and symbols from the natural and complex world.

A concept derived from Tibetan Buddhism, bardo is that difficult passage in space and time between life and death and rebirth in spiritual terms. Within the context of Macri’s specific portrait here, he is alluding to the transference from one state of being or identity into the other. The living body entering and reconfiguring itself in another, the transition from one identity to another while retaining aspects of the previous life as it puts on the attire of the new. One doesn’t have to die physically. If I look at all four portraits, Corporate Assets, Snake, Hinterland, and Phenotype Bardo, that state of emergence, or that in-between time between one reality and another becomes eminently clear.  We each of us constitute an individual phenotype, biologically speaking. And so Phenotype Bardo is a cumulative image of the inevitable process Macri initiates in Corporate Assets, even earlier in Memento Mori, that portrait of symbolic decay and transformations.

The first feature of this portrait to attract my attention is the band of cloth crossing the nose like a ribbon of silvery-brown cobra skin. Covering the lower chin and upper forehead like a brimless cap, it contrasts with androgynous, heavily mascaraed eyes. Like the late and great David Bowie in his many performances, Macri often incorporates all genders in his portraits, and does not confine himself to the prison of biological and social constructions or definitions. The torso is covered in a sensuous, sand-coloured, skin-tight cloth with branch or twig-like patterns fringing the neckline and sleeves, matching the brown chest hair visible above the V-neck of the shirt. This creature has much to do with earth and earthiness, and it’s inviting rather than forbidding. Although the shirt heightens Macri’s fine physique, again reminiscent of classic statues, I regard the body here as belonging to the suited gentleman of Corporate Assets. The man has travelled far, having freed himself from a suffocating suit, crawled through the undergrowth and emerged from Hinterland, to assume the new body of a lithe, taut, and muscular serpent in sepia.

A seemingly silver studded belt hangs from the V-neck of the shirt, pulling it down, an allusion to sloughed-off snakeskin to make room for new growth, a new dimension of being. The face is a collage of serpent-like angularity, including the devastating eyes, similar to the single eye of Snake, peering down at a quivering mouse, or potential partner in transgressive concupiscence. The lips are full, purplish-red tinged with black, the colour of earth mixed with blood. The hair is mussed, its subtly glowing luxuriance raising questions about the symbolic import of hair in Macri’s portraits, a topic about which an entire disquisition can be written. I shall not attempt to do so here. And the lighting! How did Macri produce a portrait in brown shadows, make the colour glow, and render it deeply sensual?

If we allow it, art swallows us whole, and we become something new in the process. All aspects and parts of this multi-layered portrait speak of Macri’s unique artistry and photographic skills with pose, accoutrements, shadows and lighting. And I am swallowed.

In a whimsical mood I fancy the artist has merged Adam, Eve and serpent in a simultaneous intellectual and erotic union wherein Adam becomes Eve becomes serpent becomes Adam in a provocative ménage à trois, a lithesome transgression in paradise before a jealous God kicks in, divides, and kicks them out. Not only do I see Phenotype Bardo as part of a process and closely related to Corporate Assets, Snake, and Hinterland, but I also see it as a beginning. Macri presents a transitional mingling frozen in time and space like a sculpture, the changes of costume and face indicative of the changes of nature. The nature that has always been suppressed breaks free from the confining suit of Corporate Assets, and immerses itself in green-sodden water vibrant with alternative and rebellious life. Its rebirth is demonstrated in Hinterland, its origins going as far back as the archetypal scene of the first seduction under a fruit tree. A phenotype uniquely its own in a state of becoming, leaving susurrations of endless aspiration as it slithers over the grass to a private world.

Macri’s profoundly conceived and brilliantly executed snake portraits, my personal quartet, envelope and lure me through underbrush and transformations. I follow, leaving the apple core to compost in the weeds, but I cannot go as far as I would wish, and the snake catches me forever in a state of becoming. Bereft and enlivened, seduced and liberated, my feelings are reflected in appropriate lines from the poem, “To the Snake” by Denise Levertov, more green admittedly than brown, but green, too, is a component of aquamarine, a colour of both mythical and real gardens.

Green Snake — I swore to my companions that certainly
you were harmless! But truly
I had no certainty, and no hope, only desiring
to hold you, for that joy,
which left
a long wake of pleasure, as the leaves moved
and you faded into the pattern
of grass and shadows, and I returned
smiling and haunted, to a dark morning.


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.


Serpents in my Dreams: Adamo Macri’s Snake Portraits
Essay by Kenneth Radu - March 2016