De los Reyes translates this tension in his large-scale works on hot press watercolor paper. The bright, smooth surface of the paper is bespattered by vast blots of bister, a rich, rusty red ink made from the soot of burned wood. The artist manipulates the antiquated pigment like an Abstract Expressionist painter. The gesture of the roiled bister, flung and splashed, evokes the percussive might of waves crashing against the gunwale of a ship at sea. In other places, it settles ominously in opaque pools like blood drying on the deck.

De los Reyes’s allusion to Abstract Expressionism is intentional. A partial listing of artists who explicitly explored the themes of Moby-Dick in the ‘50s and early ‘60s includes Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock (who even had a dog named Ahab).16 In his famous essay, “The American Action Painters” (1952), Harold Rosenberg comments on how American abstract artists “took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea.”17 Writing at the height of the Cold War, Rosenberg and his colleagues sought to extricate the notion of the alienated vanguard artist from the taint of Communism. They turned away from modernist European art practices that were perceived to have become weakened and corrupt. Painting became an “event” rather than ideology, while its American practitioners were depicted as “artist-heroes.” Recent art historians such as Serge Guilbaut have described the many postures that the movement had to assume in order to become the predominant art form during the “right of center” mid-century era. By stressing individualism and risk while eschewing any kind of statement that could be propagandized, its advocates ensured that Abstract Expressionism became a symbol of freedom, but one that ultimately posed no threat to a powerful, anti-totalitarian, and internationalist America.18

Tony De Los Reyes, Chapter 1: Loomings, Page 7, 2008. Red Bister On Paper; 60 7/8 X 44 1/2 Inches. Courtesy Of The Artist And Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Gene Ogami.

In de los Reyes’s Chapter 1: Loomings, Page 7(2008), an aggressive, gestural X marks the spot where the artist would have the audience begin its examination of his new works. This mark, which traditionally has been made as a sign of consent as well as identity, obliterates the very heart of the page that he has meticulously re-created in bister. At this point in the mythic novel, Ishmael discusses his desire to go whaling as a “brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances.” The narrator facetiously imagines his part in the “grand programme of Providence” appearing in a playbill:

Grand Contested Election for
the Presidency of the United States”

“WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL”

“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN”

After 9/11, readers of this chapter have been powerfully affected by the spooky prescience of Melville’s words. Post-colonial critic Edward Said was the first to draw associations between the monomania of the Pequod’s Captain Ahab and the outcry from our wounded country for revenge. Managing to sound both sympathetic and contentious, Said published an editorial in the Observer five days after the terrorist attacks that was widely reprinted or quoted elsewhere in which he cautioned against what he saw as a misguided “Demonisation of the Other” and where it might lead:

…Collective passions are being funneled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in the pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict, without clear borders, or visible actors. Manichaean symbols and apocalyptic scenarios are bandied about with future consequences and rhetorical restraint thrown to the wind.19

Footnotes

  1. For more on the influences of Melville’s novel on artists, see Elizabeth A. Schultz, Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1995).
  2. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” The Tradition of the New (Horizon Press, New York, 1959), reprinted in The London Magazine, v. 1 n. 4, July 1961, available at http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/.
  3. Serge Guilbaut, “The New Adventures of the Avant-Garde in America: Greenberg, Pollock, or from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the ‘Vital C enter,’” October 15 (Winter 1980) reprinted in Reading Abstract Expressionism, ed. Ellen G. Landau (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005), 383-399.
  4. Edward Said, “‘Islam’ and ‘West’ are inadequate banners,” Observer, September 16, 2001, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/16/september11.terrorism.
Further Reading