Review

Tony de los Reyes: Ahab’s America

Carl Berg Gallery
Los Angeles
Kristina Newhouse

Since 2006, artist Tony de los Reyes has explored Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick, concentrating on what the artist has called its appeal as a “mythic vision of America.” For his second solo exhibition on the subject at Carl Berg Gallery in Los Angeles, de los Reyes looks to those notions of heroism that are considered inherent to our national character, allowing the “perennially ecstatic and volatile” Captain Ahab to stand in as a metaphoric double for our country. In his practice, de los Reyes has often looked to the past for artistic techniques with which to explore his subject matter. In these latest works, the decidedly old-fashioned media of red bister on paper and cast bronze are complemented by acrylic paintings on linen and cast resin sculptures.

De Los Reyes’s approach to Melville’s epic tragedy is interpretive rather than pedagogical. This proposition, however, belies the viewer’s first impression. Several prominent paintings and works on paper are executed at the same scale as museum didactics and make direct use of book text (excerpted and carefully hand rendered from the artist’s personal copy of the Penguin paperback edition). Consequently, at first they come on strongly like a moralizing lecture. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes obvious that the words on the surface offer merely one layer of information.

Tony De Los Reyes, Ahab’s America, Installation View At Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles, 2008. Courtesy Of The Artist And Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles.

Practically every aspect of Ahab’s America involves a quotation of some sort. In this respect, de los Reyes’s works exhibit the classic characteristics of allegory, in which visual imagery takes on the structure of language to tell stories. This effect extends even to the physical execution of the pieces and his material choices, which nearly always have complex symbolic implications. Art historian and critic Craig Owens noted that the allegorist does not invent images, but “confiscates” them and lays claim to their “cultural significance” in order involve them in critique or commentary.1 With regard to the conditions under which allegorical works hold appeal, English literature scholar Joel Fineman observed that allegory seems to surface “in critical or polemical atmospheres, when for political or metaphysical reasons there is something that cannot be said.”2 Given the waning relevance of the Bush Administration, it seems like a strange time to take up allegory, as all the stops have already been taken out. And yet, most of de los Reyes’s new works are exceedingly compelling. While often quite dramatically rendered, each possesses a subtle tension that restrains it from going over the top. This tension is perhaps most closely characterized as ambivalence and it piques attention. Like Ahab in his famous declamation about the need to strike through the “pasteboard mask” of all visible objects, the viewer is motivated to search Ahab’s America more deeply for meaning.3

Contemporary novelist E. L. Doctorow echoes an often made remark when he says that American literature “begins with Moby-Dick, the book that swallowed European civilization whole.”4   The novel’s appearance in 1851 signaled a turn away from European prose styles and subjects to something unmistakably American, although it would take nearly seventy years for this notion to be recognized by literary critics and for the public to truly embrace it.

Moby-Dick is idiosyncratic: part novel, part philosophical treatise, part natural history lesson, part primer on whaling techniques, with episodic outbursts from a multicultural chorus straight out of Greek tragedy. The author drew from his own experiences at sea, as well as sources as divergent as Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s writings on Prometheus, and Shelley’s Frankenstein, among others.5 Its plot is based on the true story of the Nantucket whaler Essex, which sunk near the Galápagos Islands in 1820 after being sundered by an enraged sperm whale. Melville conflated the tale of the Essex with the legend of a wily albino sperm whale named Mocha-Dick who traveled the same grounds off the Pacific coast of South America and was finally taken in 1839.

Footnotes
  1. Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse,” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 54.
  2. Joel Fineman, “The Structure of Allegorical Desire,” October: The First Decade, edited by Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp and Joan Copjec (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press), 374.
  3. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: New American Library, 1980), 167.
  4. E. L. Doctorow, “Composing Moby-Dick: What Might Have Happened,” (The Astman Distinguished Lecture), “Ungraspable Phantom”: Essays on Moby-Dick, edited by John Bryant, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Timothy Marr (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006), 24.
  5. See Andrew Delbanco, “Chapter 5: Hunting the Whale,” Melville: His World and Works (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).