Feast of Bacchus

Performance with slideshow at the University of Houston Art History lecture hall, April 17, 2014.

THE FEAST OF BACCHUS

This is first painting that I ever admired . It has been in the home of my grandmother, Hortensia G. Moya, also known as Bunny, since I can remember. It was made half a century ago when the family was living in Madrid during General Francisco Franco’s regime, when my grandfather (who I never met) commissioned a French painter and fellow barfly to reproduce his favorite portion of Diego Velazquez’s Los Borrachos, or The Drunks. Then as it is now, the painting hung at the Prado museum, but it was originally painted under the aegis of Philip IV in 1629. For his labor, Velázquez was paid 100 ducats (though I don’t know how much my grandfather’s Frenchman was paid), which was a coinage brought to the Iberian Peninsula by traders in the 1400s, the end of which century, as we all know, took place The Discovery of the New World.

So, you could say that like many, my story begins on the other side of Atlantic. But, more on that later.

As a snippet of its full form, the painting is without its outlying mythological content, allegory, or even the elegant still life at the foot of Bacchus. This elision is fitting, though; Bacchus was known by many names, so many as to become in a way everything and everywhere; Bacchus the Giver of Unmixed Wine, Bacchus the Goat Killer, Bacchus of the Trees, Bacchus with Balls, Bacchus Completely Hidden, and Bacchus the False Man are just a few examples of his many epithets. It is in the spirit of these many names, faces, places, and futures that I proceed.

Here we have all the elements needed for the creation of wine: a natural landscape, grapes, and men. Yet the wine comes only from Bacchus himself; it is he who sits atop the wine barrel, guards empty vessels at his feet, and it is only he who casts a custodial glance towards the hanging grapevines in the top left corner of the canvas. The god’s presence eliminates evidence of the labor and time necessary for the production of wine. Bacchus is like the supermarket that displays only those finished products divorced from the marks of their making. Without this grounding, the gifts and pleasures that Bacchus bestows seem spontaneous, free flowing, and without consequence or history. HEB’s Combo Loco and Meal Deal operate in a similar fashion. In this recent Meal Deal, the shopper buys Hill Country Fare Beef, chicken, or pork fajitas, and gets tortilla chips, shredded cheese, salsa, and Big Red for “free”! When one thing begets more things free of charge, the shopper feels celebratory, as if they have been given a gift or somehow circumvented the usual rules of currency and exchange. Like Bacchus’s wine, the Combo Loco or Meal Deal items just are. This means that shoppers no longer have to consider the details or values that brought the ‘free’ products into being, or what brought the items together into HEB’s set groupings in the first place. It is with this beneficent tack that HEB traces the boundaries of shoppers’ gastronomies and, in turn, sends messages about ethnic demographics.

In the Combo Loco, HEB courts the very Bacchus-y idea of ‘locura’, or craziness. With its free-ranging text and swirled ‘o’ of ‘loco, the Combo Loco suggests a sort of Tempest’s Ariel floating on the wind, never to be contained. In its litheness, the Combo Loco can theoretically apply to a pairing of anything in the store, from food to toiletries. Indeed, in the past, Combo Locos (or Combos Locos) were truly ‘loco’, producing such disparate pairings as q tips and honey. Over time, however, the Combos have become less ‘loco’ in their blind, associative sense, and more pre- and descriptive of certain populations and behaviors. Here, in the title ‘HEB Texas heritage Sausage Smoked with Texas pecan wood’, HEB situates itself as the provider of an authentic, historically-corroborated (or ‘heritage’) product, one that links agriculture, food, and geography to state pride (pecan being the state tree of Texas). The bringing together of sausage, beans, and BBQ sauce also necessarily connotes specific regional recreational activities such as tubing, playing cornhole, or just sitting in your grandma’s back yard watching your uncle grill out with tongs in one hand and a Bud Light in the other. The choice between sausage with Borracho, Charro or Spicy Charro beans OR sausage and BBQ sauce means the combo can go Mexican American-flavored (which in the aforementioned uncle scenario has a heavy emphasis on the ‘Borracho’ part), or towards a more general Anglo dining experience (ie- sans charro or borracho beans). This type of cultural-gastronomic projection also occurs in a more extended manner in HEB’s Meal Deal. This example significantly includes Big Red, a beverage that until the 1970s was exclusively marketed to Central and South Texas (with a largely Mexican American consumer base) and which is even included as an ingredient in Tex-Mex recipes such as Big Red and Barbacoa. In these examples, HEB  tells us what and how we eat and, in turn, behave in the past, present, and future. Its Combo Loco is about as crazy as this Baby Bacchus: we know he is crazy because he is naked, chubby, and urinating in public, but he is also very much in control: it is he who uncorked the wine barrel that he so nonchalantly lounges against, and it is he who determinedly pounds this jug of red wine.

Bacchus is a trickster who exists somewhere between good and bad, never to be pinned down precisely. I am reminded here of the Royal Chicano Air Force , whose catchphrase was “locura lo cura”, or ‘craziness cures it’. The RCAF was an artist collective from Sacramento, California, founded in 1969 that included musicians, writers, and activists who created youth art classes, the Breakfast for Niños program, La Raza Bookstore, painted murals in Sacramento and San Diego’s Chicano Park, organized community-based cultural events, and drove a mobile screen printing poster van around town. La locura lo cura; the group maintained their joking-healing ethos as they hyped Chicano culture in the streets of Sacramento.Originally named the Rebel Chicano Art Front, the RCAF changed their name when their organization’s acronym was confused with the Royal Canadian Air Force. But this coincidence is also not completely random; hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans of their fathers’ generation fought in World War II as part of the United States’ Armed Forces, including my own grandfather Luis Moya, who lied about his age to join and ended up in the tropical horrors of the Pacific Theater.

This painting was made because the US Air Force sent my grandfather to Spain. He was sent to Spain because could speak Spanish and because the US had ties to General Franco’s regime. Did my grandfather ever feel guilty for his part, however small, in maintaining Franco’s dictatorship? After all, it was Franco who sought the help of another air force earlier, during the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed the small Basque town of Guernica. This painting was made shortly after the attack and just a year after Picasso was named the Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum, which, as mentioned earlier, contains this painting.

What’s going on here? Men rush in happily, adoringly, to partake of Bacchus’s feast. Bacchus does not ask for repayment, only for participation in his plentitude. The god is known for the kind of excess and splendor that can only be followed by regret, punishment, decay, and waste like so much supermarket shelf stock. Anyone who’s ever had a hangover knows that this scene will devolve into madness. But we are frozen here, in this lush, tempting cornucopia at the edge of a beginning, in a point of seeming infinity and pleasure. No one has sipped yet, no one has broken the seal. The the man closest to doing so looks suspiciously like my uncle who always gave us Texas Lotto scratch offs for Christmas and birthdays. This frozen moment is the same one that compels the fingers on the dirty penny to scritch that scratch.

At night as a kid with nothing to do and no thoughts in my head, I would watch the Texas Lottery drawing broadcast live from its headquarters a few miles away in downtown Austin. Imagine a lone man standing behind an oversized, clear plastic case where white, numbered balls boil frantically. It’s dead quiet on the TV studio set except for the dull popping sound of the caged balls. Languidly, mysteriously, the man pulls out the balls in a sequence and turns each ball’s number forward to face the camera.

Preserving the moment before consuming, before being consumed. Painted 101 years after the Discovery of the New World and restaged photographically a few hundred years later, Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus is a self portrait made in the midst of malaria. The iffiness of contemporary medicine and his very Bacchus-esque and unruly lifeways as an artist and murderer make this work an act of self-preservation. By allying his jaundiced and feverish existence with that of a god, Caravaggio uses the painting to visually freeze time. Infinity is also represented by the unblemished produce in his hand and on the table: not one leaf is folded, and not one peach is pierced. Knowing what feast and folly may follow, viewers delight in observing the untouched plentitude of Bacchus’s fruity splendor. We are suspended by these fruits; uneaten and unspoiled, they and their human companions are eternal.

Bacchus holds fruit and wears it as a crown, imbuing it with sacrality as it touches his body and vise versa. The fruits’ proximity to his body collapse physical geographies and present a simultaneity of place fitting for a god since fruits like pomegranates, figs, cherries, and apricots were brought to Caravaggio’s homeland only through extensive and arduous trade routes. But what does it mean when fruit is worn by mortals? With Carmen Miranda’s tutti frutti hat or Josephine Baker’s Danse sauvage banana skirt (or her drag duplicate, Raja), the fruits become brandable fantasies of exoticism and ethnicity.

Humans that insert themselves into fruits cultivate this association or complicate it, as is the case with Manila Luzon’s Rupaul’s Drag Race Season Three runway look, which asks us: human or fruit? Man or Woman? Filipino or white?  Though Manila steers us, fruit may take over living space, flowers, and the human body itself. Humans must assure their own dominance against nature. In this way, fruits are eternal, contained, and eventually broke like this watermelon whose seeds are strewn across its flesh like hungry sugar ants.

I return once more to HEB: San Antonio artist and fellow halfie Chuck Ramirez worked for the grocery chain as a designer and photographer for 14 years. In this work, the leftovers of beer, café de olla, crumpled aluminum foil, and barbacoa (perhaps with Big Red) are evidence of an orgiastic scarf session. Now abandoned, its diners pushed back from the table in stuffed disgust, the scene is a tantalizing play of color, light, and texture that invites us to gobble up the remains of the half eaten taco and scoop up the salsa as it resonates with sensuous pleasure. Chuck’s image gives us hope for the post-Bacchian state; there is always room for a little more, and there is always something left.

 

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