Pasadena artist Jacquelyn McBain doesn’t produce a lot of work, but she works very, very hard, which is evident when you see her paintings — they are astonishingly detailed, richly colorful and as meticulously crafted as any of the Old Masters. Her work doesn’t get to be seen often enough locally; she is represented by a New York gallery, Littlejohn Contemporary, and her paintings have been shown in such venues as the Laguna Art Museum, Delaware Center for the Arts, Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Alexandria Museum of Art and, most recently, the National Museum of Art in Gdansk. Locally, you may have been fortunate enough to see her work at the Armory‘s Bugology show in 2006, and at the Art Alliance‘s biannual auctions, for which she always donates a piece.
McBain had so much to say that was so fascinating that I couldn’t bear to cut it, so I’m running it in two parts. Look for Part 2 in a few days.
— Colleen Dunn Bates
How did you end up living in Pasadena?
My partner and I moved to Pasadena in 1985. Which, funnily enough, was exactly 100 years after my great-great-grandmother moved to Pasadena from Chicago. And the house we lived in on the corner of Madison and California wasn’t far from where she’d lived on Oakland Avenue. I didn’t know this for a few years. But then my grandmother remembeed visiting her grandmother, here and going to the races at Santa Anita. And my great-aunt gave me the specific addresses and names and photographs.
I understand you’re working on a painting of the Corpse Flower, which just finished an extremely rare bloom at Huntington Gardens. What drew you to paint that?
After visiting the first bloom in 1999, nearly every day, I started thinking about the painting. On a trip to Thailand, we rode through wilderness on elephants, and I had just learned about pygmy elephants. When I got home, the painting got underway. I had to put it aside for some years to work through some problems and now I’m finishing it, just as the descendant of the first Arum bloomed.
All my paintings have numerous points of interest; some intersect logically and some illogically. As a naturalist, a painter, a gardener. And as an anthropologist informally, of course.
Flowers have long been my primary subject. When people line up to see the blooming of a plant — in lines so long they go all the way out the parking area, down Allen past California — that’s extreme interest. It’s like a pilgrimage. And I was one of the pilgrims. This plant produces heat! It could easily be in Alice’s Wonderland.
And then there’s its size — the truth is stranger than fiction. The real world is more amazing than the imaginary world. Most flowers draw us in, intimately. We look at them. This one is so large we can relate to it with our sixth sense, proprioception. We relate with our whole being. We aren’t just looking at it, we’re sharing its space. It’s the size of a human adult, sometimes much bigger.
I’m interested in portraying perception in paint — portraying light, texture, atmosphere concave and convex. And I’m interested in how our minds process what we see, our primacy, our core selves. It all comes down to: “Who are we, where do we come from and where are we going?”
The Corpse Flower’s name is Amorphophallus titanium. Just look at the words. There is amorpho and phallus. In Latin it means something like oddly shaped or shapeless phallus. (One, you might add, wearing an upside-down skirt by Fortuny or the rounded gathering of the bride’s dress in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini painting.)
But Amorphophallus, that’s a scientist’s choice of names. Imagination is useful in art, religion and science. There’s only so much empiricism you can take. Still, scientists are trained to think past their initial visceral responses. If the rest of us could enjoy the greater pleasure of understanding how to think past sensational responses we could make the world a much better place. I think it is becoming an imperative if we are to save ourselves from ourselves. Part of that ability comes from learning the various processes.
Consider for a moment the difference between homologous features and analogous features. Homologous means there is a common inherited root for similar features — for example, the wings of a bat, the hands I’m typing this with and the hooves of a horse derive from shared ancestry. Whereas analogous features are similar in appearance and/or function but derive not from shared ancestry but evolved independently. Wings of birds, wings of insects and wings of bats… those are analogous features.
So the phallic shape of the Arum is a simile. But people will take appearances and run with them, won’t they? The rhino horn and this huge, phallic plant are both regarded as aphrodisiacs based upon visual similarities and do not, except as perhaps in the power of self-deceipt, make an effective substitute for Viagra.
I’m interested in people’s fascinations. I’m interested in the intersection or interdigitation of science and religion.
How threatened should I feel about one of the Ten Commandments saying not to paint anything when religion is such a powerful stimulant of violence? Why does one religion feel the need to blow up or tear down the symbols of another? Why is it terrible to dance around a golden calf but virtuous to gaze in reverence at a lamb with a cross crooked in his foreleg while standing upon a pedestal?
If you refine the question to its niceties, you might say that images are fine so long as a person doesn’t worship them. But there are paintings that I revere. There are painters who are so elevated in their gifts that I feel very worshipful toward them. Many of us do.
I suspect you’ve noticed, as I have, that the news carries stories rather regularly of people seeing Christ on a grilled cheese sandwich. This is a door to rendering. Seeing animals and beings in the clouds and stars is a very old pastime.
Think of our ancestors, 35,000 years ago. They were us. They had the same brain power. See them gathering together in a cave in the south of what we call France, See the light from their fire casting flickering shadows across the walls. If you spend all your daylight hours intently trying to see an auroch or an Irish Elk or something else to have for dinner, your brain will present you with their forms, at night, in the shadows of a flickering bonfire. And you would have wanted to share what you saw. You would have taken a piece of charred wood and drawn upon the wall. You could have used it as a professor uses a blackboard. It would bolster the conversation and give it the added dimension of the magic that is painting. We should all be pinching ourselves for our great fortune for all the efforts of those who have gone before us to expand and improve the pool of knowledge and find the answers to so many questions.
Your blog says that one of your favorite books is Adam’s Curse, written by a geneticist who argues that men may be in the process of becoming extinct. Why is that book a favorite?
Because it is brilliantly and entertainingly written and sheds light on questions that once seemed unlikely ever to be answered.
You may remember that Thor Heyerdahl set out to demonstrate that the Polynesians could have migrated from South America, and he sailed a raft from South America to Polynesia to do it. In Adam’s Curse, we learn how the advance of science into genetics solves the mystery conclusively. Author Bryan Sykes found that through DNA testing, the Polynesians are rooted maternally in Taiwan. Paternally, they have Taiwan ancestry as well, but there is also a lot of European in them, thanks to the European sailors who visited and sometimes remained on the islands. The DNA that comes exclusively from the father, the Y chromosome, is passed father to son, father to son, father to son… thousands of years back in time. Genghis Khan didn’t know the scientific method when he was sowing his seed among thousands of women. But genetic testing demonstrably confirms the claims of some of his descendants. His Y chromosome was sown far and wide and appears to be concentrated in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there seems to be a bit of his personality passed along with it!
The Icelanders have a strong Viking presence in their Y chromosomes, unsurprisingly, but the maternal line, traced through their mitochondrial DNA, gives evidence of women from Ireland and Scotland.
And behavioral traits we associate with Genghis Khan and the Vikings — ruthless raping, pillaging, conquering — seem to match their Y chromosomes’ success over the Y chromosomes of other men. And with it, though there’s no proof but a strong whiff of possibility, these behavioral traits may have been passed along as well. A certain shortage of empathy, in some cases. The same trait might be seen in elephant seals, elk or moose. One big male inseminating many females.
Yes, men are becoming extinct — in a way and very gradually. (You have to read the book to find out why, because it can’t be explained in a paragraph; it is a very accessible book if you make a bit of effort.) Men will not go soon or quietly. Still, it would be nice to have many fewer wars and fewer murders. It would be nice to have less raping and pillaging. It would be nice if women had a bit more power so they can help to bring the world’s population into check.
More coming from McBain in a few days…..