An Allegory with Venus and Cupid: Unveiled

Written by Paige Hudson

October 22, 2020

The painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is an especially spicy piece, filled with hidden messages and drama that has left people contemplating the real meaning since its creation in 1545. It is layered in parables that have been questioned, theorized, and debated over the centuries. It is a work of art that holds symbolism prevalent throughout society and time.

Along with the formal analysis there will be personal and psychoanalytic point of view as well. In order to fully develop and elaborate on the potential of this painting, the article will be split into sections. Each figure is a parable in itself and will be most comprehensive in a subsection of their own. My effort here is to leave you with fundamental knowledge on this piece and to also wonder for yourself how it all ties in together and what you think it could mean.

Before diving into the analysis of this painting, there are some important details from the Mannerist era that went into shaping this piece.

Mannerism blossomed from the Renaissance somewhat rebelliously. This new movement broke the rules held carefully by renaissance artists. Instead of looking toward nature for inspiration, they turned toward art itself and past masterpieces.

The term ‘Mannerist’ comes from the first known art historian, Giorgio Lazatti Manierd (‘Manierd’ meaning ‘style’). This new style of painting presented figures from religion as well as mythology and held characteristics like twisted postures, ambiguous scales, distorted perspective and rich colors. All of these characteristics will be discussed along with deeper hidden messages and interpretations throughout the article.

Our master artist behind this painting is Agnolo di Cosimo, or more popularly known as Bronzino. He was thought to have been commissioned by Consimo I de’ Medici as a gift for King Francis I of France.

Visual Analysis

Each artwork veils its unique motifs through the formal elements of art. This painting in particular holds peculiarities within its colors, lighting, space, and composition.

The title alone has proved to be the first enigma of this piece because An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is not necessarilythe real title. It has also been titled Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, as well as A Triumph of Venus. Thus, further adding mystery to the unconfirmed collection of visual allegories.

Not surprisingly, this is not the only secret behind the painting. In this part of the article I will break down the piece through its foundations in effort to unveil its truth and establish its structure.

Venus & Cupid

Upon first viewing this painting, the blatant eroticism between Cupid (young boy in the left foreground) and Venus (woman in center foreground) is evident. The scene tone shifts from romantic to uncomfortable when realizing this soft sexual pose is held by mother and son. They create this pose with Venus’ legs draped across the ground, framing the bottom of the piece, and her body upright. The positioning of her arms and body create a twisting motion. Cupid is sculpted around her, and with this, the two figures adopt the figura serpentinata pose that is classic for Mannerism style paintings. The two are highlighted with bright flush tones that contrast the Ultra Marine and Phalo blues of the background and the coldness of the other figures.

Venus is positioned as the central axis. She holds a golden apple from The Judgement of Paris in her left hand that confirms her identity for us. Cupid holds an awkward pose to pleasure Venus with one hand on her breast and the other holding her head, while also kissing her. If we look at the lower half of his body he is partially kneeling and almost kicking two doves away, this will be discussed more later on.

The two figures hold the first point of attention among many and are the forefront attention of this painting. Although Venus and Cupid are the center staple, Venus, by size comparison, is much larger than any other figure in the painting. This could be Bronzino’s way of using a hierarchal scale in his painting, showing that Venus is in control and therefore the most powerful.

Folly

To avoid this initial form of detached passion, or maybe to get a clearer answer for it, the eye travels to each of the other figures.

The little boy beside them is in movement as if to shower them in flower petals. His expression is joyous and unbothered by the many things going on behind him—as well as the thorn piercing his right foot.

I would also like to note the lighting in this painting, along with the layered bodies, there is a definition of shadow that adds depth and mystery to the underlying figures. The longer you look at it, the more chaotic things become.

Deceit/ Fraud

Behind the young boy is a girl in a green dress. She seems calm and emotionless but looking a bit closer we see her body tells a much different story. Under her gown she has the body of a serpent, the legs of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. Her right hand holds a honeycomb while her left hand twists in a strange position to hold the stinger at the end of her tail. Below these two figures is a pile of masks that will be theorized later on.

Father Time

Above these two figures is a bearded man who we can assume to be Father Time or, Chronos, due to the hourglass hidden behind him. His skin is more vibrant with color which makes him look more human-like but his highlighted wing reinforces his godly status. We can also see that his grey beard and baldness shows age, therefore reinforcing Time, but his skin and muscle show youth.

His right arm frames the top half of the painting while his hand is bent backwards. This suggests that he is either holding up the blue sheet or trying to tear it down. It is difficult to decipher the meaning of the movement. This detail will become important in later discussion.

Oblivion

The person, or illusion of a person, in the top left corner has a mixed look of surprise and possibly disgust by Father Time’s actions. This character has been given the name of Oblivion by past art historians which will be analyzed later on, for the sake of convenience I will refer to it by its name. Oblivion’s head is only partial, with the back half missing, much like a head that was cracked open, or a mask attached to a body. The position of the hands show Oblivion is clearly holding up the blue sheet.

Jealousy

The screaming woman is likely the most debated over because she seems out of place compared to the coolness of the rest of the painting. Although it seems she is hidden, she is impossible to miss. Her colors are dull in comparison to the rest of the figures skin tones. She is the epitome of suffering. She faces away from the carnal scene in a world of her own.

What does it all mean?

Venus & Cupid

Venus and Cupid are a dichotomic representation of female and male sexuality. Another name for this is man vs. nature. I.e mother nature, chaos, and divine feminine vs. humanity, order, and divine masculine. The two are in a constant opposition, which requires balance to maintain stability. This reflection of balanced primordial energy has many names and comes in many forms throughout the expansion of life.

Female and male energy are like yin and yang. Female energy is loving, caring, and cyclic like a circle. The male energy is aloof but direct, like a straight line (phallic). Together these form a spiral, similar to the figura serpentinata (spiral) pose that Venus and Cupid create in the painting.

Venus’s facial expression is relaxed, nearly lazy in passion and her lips are slightly parted. Even though she is entangled with Cupid she does not seem to be completely focused on this affair. I believe this is because in her right hand she is taking Cupid’s arrow from its sheath as if to disarm him. Cupid seems too entranced with Venus to notice or even care that she is doing this. This could be viewed as an analogy of man vs nature.

Man becomes pleasure-obsessed, as Cupid is with Venus, which can make people become ignorant or naïve of nature and cause them take advantage of what they are given, i.e Cupid’s arrow. That is, until something happens that reminds humanity (Cupid) that we are defenseless against Mother Nature (Venus). This constant balance of order in a chaotic world is necessary for our survival, but when we become power hungry, we will be put into check by the powers that be.

Contrasting this is the pinkness in her and Cupid’s ears and cheeks. Blushing is an involuntary psychological response to a few different things, including romantic stimulation. The positioning of her hand tells one story while her body and face tell another.

Doves

In the bottom left corner are two doves, one is almost completely hidden. Historically, this bird is a symbol for innocent love and the divine. It is difficult to decipher whether they are included in this painting to be exclusively symbolic, or to show that Cupid is pushing them away.

If Bronzino painted them in to represent the purity and divinity of the two, it could mean that this affair is normal and common among gods, and that they really do love each other. However, if it is the latter, it represents the opposite. It would show us that this rendezvous is not of purity. It is not godly. It is not moral, and Cupid is trying to hide that.

Folly

Moving on to the right-hand figures, the young boy has been thought to represent Folly by previous art historians. He is so caught up in the passion between lovers that he is indifferent to the thorn piercing through his right foot. He does not register the pain because his mind is engrossed in excitement and pleasure by watching them.

I believe this is a connection to man vs. self. Once a person becomes overtly obsessed with their own pleasures, they become gluttonous. They no longer are filtering their actions through morals but justifying it through satisfaction. It seems, at the peak of this obsession, the person is no longer aware of themselves. They give up themselves and their power to attain something else, whether that be a feeling, person, or thing. The thorn in this situation could be an expression of morality, the one thing consistently grounding people in their humanity.

Deceit

The young girl carries a slew of meaning on her own and has been named Deceit/ Fraud. She portrays innocence in her youthful face but hides a mutated body of three combined animals. The first is the serpent. Snakes have held many forms of meaning throughout time but specifically for this painting it is seen as fraudulence or deception, as well as wisdom. She is cunning and holds truths unknown to others.

Then she has the legs of a lion or otherwise strong animal, powerful and ruling. And finally, the tail or a scorpion, venomous and therefore dangerous. The girl is a hidden figure, but she symbolizes the truth behind Mother Nature. She is beautiful and full of life, objectively innocent upon first look, but a bit closer and we see she is wicked and unexpecting with great power.

A honeycomb in her right hand is an emblematic form of temptation. In her left hand she holds the stinger of her tail. It is turned away from the viewer in effort to partially hide it. Between both hands she holds ambidextrous power. You can have the sweetness of the honeycomb, but it comes with the price of her venom. Just as we accept the fruit and harvest that nature provides, we also have to deal with the powerful misfortunes that can be laid upon us at any moment.

Additionally, the foot that is pierced with the thorn (of the boy) is encircled by the girls’ venomous tail. This connects back to the root human nature, the side of us that is entrapped in the threshold of chaotic feminine, a direct line to our animalistic tendencies. This is why his facial expression does not align with his suffering, because it is masked by appetence and consummated by mania.

The girl is in shadow because when people encounter deceit in their lives, it is usually hidden behind something or someone they were too trusting, hopeful, obsessed or infatuated with. Folly could be any one of us at some point in our lives with someone or something. Failing to objectively consider all sides of a situation could easily let us fall victim to deceit or fraud. When unguarded by the possibility of pleasure in some form, humans fail to see an important truth or possibility.

Dante’s Inferno Connection

An interesting connection is the resemblance between Bronzino’s and Dante’s personification of “Fraud.” Dante named his character “Geryon”, who resided at the eighth circle of Hell (Fraud.) He seems to resemble a dragon overall, but Geryon had the face of an innocent and happy man, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and the tail of a scorpion.  The girl in An Allegory with Venus and Cupid seems to be a reference to Dante’s Inferno.

Father Time

To the top right of the piece we see Father Time. The positioning of his hands, after much consideration, left me to believe that he is trying to hold up the sheet instead of taking it down. This is because his left hand is holding onto the fabric and the sheet is draped over his right hand.

If Bronzino wanted Father Time to give the appearance of tearing it down, I would like to think his hands would be gripping the sheet, rather than holding it up. His expression seems concerned with the figure to the far left, as if not sure if they will also continue holding it up or maybe out of concern for the situation taking place in front of them. Father Time is helping cover the truth.

Oblivion

So who is the other figure hiding this lewd affair? They have never been given a confirmed identity. However, we assume this to be Oblivion for the following reasons. In Greek mythology, he is known as Lethe. The word ‘lethe’ means forgetfulness/oblivion/concealment. This is also related to the Greek word aletheia, which means ‘truth’.

With these things in mind it would make sense why Bronzino chose Oblivion to be in opposition of Father Time. Time is holding up the fabric, trying to hide the erotic scene, and is shooting a worried look towards Oblivion in fear of him uncovering the truth. Oblivion holds a shocked expression with vacant, empty eyes. His head is partially broken and missing, this is an allusion to his names true meaning, “forgetfulness.” He is also helping to conceal the love affair taking place.

Jealousy

Last but not least is the figure with the greatest mystique. The woman (or thought to be woman) hidden behind the couple. She pulls her damp hair with clenched hands and screams in agony. The tones of her skin portray sickliness. At a closer look, the fingers are red and swollen, the gums are toothless, and there is pain reflected in her expression. These are all symptoms of syphilitic alopecia. This one figure is what lead theorists to believe that this painting was actually meant to portray the various signs of syphilis. The toothless gums are also an indication of mercury poisoning, which was common in Renaissance times for trying to provide therapy for syphilis.

Syphilis Theory

An Allegory with Cupid and Venus was created fifty years after the discovery of syphilis. It spread throughout Europe and caused a widespread panic as the “new plague” and venereal disease. This woman figure solemnly convinced people that the true meaning of this painting was that “unchaste love comes with great consequence.” This theory could be elaborated, but I do not believe it to fully justify the deeper and hidden messages given to us by Bronzino.

Another theory, one I agree with, is that this woman is Jealousy. She is suffering in undeniable agony and holding her head. Jealousy is an ugly feeling, especially when acted upon and she was meant to portray that emotion. She was not meant to be pretty or even likeable, especially among all the other attractive characters in this painting.

She is holding her head because jealousy is essentially a mix of intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and insecurity. The woman is letting jealousy take over and losing herself in the process. She is perfectly placed behind the two figures and in shadow because she is an afterthought in her own mind, and therefore is painted that way.

Psychoanalysis

The psychoanalytic side of this piece encourages us to break our minds open even further and work ourselves into the depths of this piece.

Eroticism between mother and son is, in Freudian terms, the Oedipus complex. This complex occurs during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (between 3-6 years of age (keep this in mind when looking at Cupid’s face)). The Oedipus complex is when a young boy becomes sexually attracted to his mother and apprehensive toward his father. There has been much debate over this theorized complex, but this painting portrays it well. Although this painting came long before the study of psychology, it is still relevant to it. If you find this interesting, I encourage you to do further research.

 The sexuality between young boy and mother is clear. There is emphasis of childlike features when looking at Cupid’s head, but his body is closer to that of a young adult. As we can see, Bronzino was an incredible artist and clearly understood anatomical proportion, so why would he paint Cupid this way?

 To show the love between mother and son at various stages of life, in my opinion. Young boys tend to be closer to their mother than anyone else in childhood (hence the complex) and here we see Cupid’s child-self kissing his mother. The young adult body shows a different situation, it is closer to the Genital stage in Freuds developmental chart. In this stage (puberty to adult) adolescents begin to become sexually experimental. This is evident with Cupid groping Venus’ breast.

Another idea deals with Venus taking Cupid’s arrow of love. This could mean a few things. The first is that even though mothers are (or supposed to be) loving and caring towards their children, they can also be the opposite. When we are young, we don’t understand why our mother might yell at us or treat us poorly. We don’t see her struggles or even realize that she is a real person with real emotions usually until we are well into adulthood.

Our mothers, especially for boys, can be the person who teaches us that love is a beautiful and necessary part of life, or can teach us that love is manipulation, guilt, abuse, or otherwise. In this painting we see the action taking place, but not the reaction. We don’t know what Venus is going to do with the arrow. We don’t know how Cupid will react when he realizes she has stolen it. And we don’t know how this situation as a whole will shape him into an adult.

The second explanation relates to man vs. nature, that although we have no choice but to trust and love her, hence, mother nature, she still carries the authority over us to rid us of any power or control we might think we have. Any plans (order in our lives) we have can be ruined at any moment, and when this happens, we slip into chaos. We slip back into the true identity of nature.

Masks

The other detail I would like to discuss are the masks below the boy. The masks represent the personas among people, and even gods. These items connect to Oblivion because he appears to have a mask as a face. The ambiguity of Oblivion is brilliant because it reinforces the idea that we only know what he is on the surface and keeps us guessing at who he might be. It would be ideal to think people are what they seem to be in our minds, but as we’ve learned, that isn’t the case.

The masks also connect to Deceit because she is hiding her truth, just as the masks hide a person’s true form. Each character has been painted with the purpose of making the viewer look closer and think deeper. They have a perfected persona on the outside, and we identify them with our interpretation of this. But then we can see their actions, and this shows us a peek at who they really are. The masks have been included to remind us that no one is who we think they are.

Conclusion

An Allegory with Cupid and Venus is by far one of my favorite Mannerist paintings. It simultaneously consists of qualities taken from artistic masters before its time while still bringing fresh ideas into the art world. It has held my attention every time I have seen it as I’m sure it’s done for thousands of other artists. The longer time goes on and strays further from this painting, and the more society progresses from the state of humanity in the time this was created, I believe the true and original meaning is slowly lost and unrecoverable.

 The final and jarring conclusion I have come to is that Father Time is actually holding up the fabric of time. Although we see the painting and can attempt an answer, the answer sits with Bronzino in the grave. It is still hidden behind this blue sheet of time.

The truth is that we will most likely never have a definite answer but rather interpretations. Whether that be our own or those of the ones that choose to chime in. But maybe those perceptions of it are even more important in the long run. Maybe it’s the collection of thoughts from people that keep the painting alive. Maybe the authenticity of the piece sits inside the minds of its viewers and expands itself through time and perspective. In the end, it is the creative observer that has to dismantle this sheet of time to reveal their own truth behind the piece.

The Art of David Coffey

Written by Alexander Greco

July 20, 2020

Hailing from Dallas, TX, David Coffey’s is an artist whose figurative style and darker undertones and themes I quickly resonated with. Ranging across themes of power, abuse, human duality and beauty, David’s artwork expresses tangled and conflicting aspects of human nature, much of which we are averse to confronting in our waking lives, but are ever-present in our psyches.

David has been creating art since childhood and, as with many underground artists and creators, is self-taught.

“I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. My love for art began with sketching during class at school, continued into drawing while lying on the carpet floor of my room as a boy, and I’ve never stopped drawing since. I didn’t start painting until just about 2 years ago, so that’s been a learning experience. I never have had any formal training. I use a lot of books, tutorials, and such to learn. I also just experiment a lot to see how things turn out. I try to imitate things that I really like. My greatest inspiration is other artists both living and dead. They are my teachers.”

Despite the many faults of living in this Digital Era, one of the great benefits—possibly one of the greatest benefits—is the access that everyone now has to information and education that might have previously been barred from many because of money or circumstance. While books and various forms of public access to them have been around for hundreds of years, the sheer level of information that can be accessed now is unprecedented, and it’s a tool that few seem to really appreciate.

So, I wonder how many artists and other creators like David—how many people even outside the arts—we’ll hear about in the coming years who found success from circumventing traditional routes of education and taking their talents and ambitions into their own hands.

Picasso Portrait
Acrylic on Canvas

David spoke quite a bit about some of his influences and inspirations, which span across historic eras and artistic genres:

“[…] my love of art began with comic book art as a boy. I still adore comic book art. Since around my teenage years I’ve been enamored with a number of famous artists: Picasso, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Bosch, Baselitz, Philip Guston, Max Beckmann, and others. I pretty much like anything that’s in the modern art time period. I also adore Japanese art of all flavors from the old school landscapes to contemporary stuff and Manga art.”

“[…] I’ve been reading [comics] ever since I was a boy and still at it. Swamp Thing (old and new), Watchmen, Sandman, Hellboy, anything by Charles Burns, Fables, Books of Magic, Paper Girls, Saga, Buddha (by Tezuka), Bone, Amulet, The Walking Dead, to name a few in my collection.”

“Yes, my Doppelgänger and Nephilim [series] definitely have some Bacon influence. They are dark in theme, have a fairly solid background, and involve a lot of chance and improvisation both within the body structures and the textured backgrounds.”

In David’s first figurative series, his “Artist Portraits” series, many of these famous artists emerge on canvas in a blend of David’s and the artist’s style. His comic book and manga influence likewise can be seen throughout many of his series, whether as reference material or as thematic inspiration for some of his work.

Regarding his art process and how he plans or organizes his pieces, David discussed quite thoroughly how his pieces come to be:

Nephilim #3
Acrylic, Sharpie and Sealant on Canvas

“I think about a larger general idea I’d like to explore, such as power or exploitation, I think about what sort of human figures I’d like to experiment with, some general thoughts about style and composition, and how many I’d like to include in the set. […].

“I don’t tackle any details at all until I start working on an individual painting. When I’m focusing on a single painting, I usually begin with source images that I want to use for composition. […] From there, I start making vague decisions about other elements that I’ll include in the painting (such as including snakes to the interact with the main character) and what colors I might like to use.

“On the actual canvas, I usually begin with a pencil sketch that is very close to the original pic I’m using as a basis. From there I alter the pencil markings. This is pretty intuitive, so I just keep changing things until I see what I like. The pencil serves as a basic sketch for where I might place paint. The painting process is super intuitive. I have ideas about what I might like to do, but I rarely make decisions beyond what I’m doing in the moment. I change colors often, experiment with movements and blends, add, cover, etc. It’s really just a constant work of adding and covering elements that I don’t like. I evaluate the work about every 30 seconds or so.”

The process of creation is something I’ve personally been interested in. The mechanical aspects of various forms of creation are endlessly fascinating. Composition, color arrangement, grammar, narrative structure, chord progressions—these are all the architectures of paintings, music and stories we’ve all come to love. But then there’s this sort of black-box of intuition, where the mechanics of art end and the subtler mechanics of the psyche begin. There’s a sort of jumping off point, a place where you’re swimming in open water.

With David’s work, this jumping off point comes as soon as the brush begins spreading color across the canvas. There’s the underlying structure of the sketch, and the themes he plans to incorporate, and then it’s all based on intuition from there.

Da Vinci Portrait
Acrylic on Canvas

Beginning with his “Artist Portraits” series, there is a lean towards figuratism, as well as expressionist and impressionist styles. For each different artist, David mixed the style of the artist with his own personal way of painting, making portraits that reflect both his and the artist’s work.

“The artist series was an attempt to explore some of my favorite artists by incorporating elements of their style into a portrait. I was the one making it thought so it actually was more about me than them and how I thought about them, what I wanted to learn from them and their lives. […] I mostly chose artists that I admire and that I personally felt provided major breakthroughs in the art world, but that’s just according to my own bias.”

These portraits include Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and William de Kooning. The one exception to this blending of styles seems to be with Leonardo da Vinci, where, rather than blend styles, David includes personal, childhood icons with his portrait of a man who made incredibly iconic pieces of art.

Nephilim #5
Acrylic, Sharpie, Mixed Media on Canvas

In the next series, the “Nephilim” series, David pushes his artwork into an almost surreal space of impressionist figuratism—which carries on into the series after it, “Doppelgänger”. This series consists of incredibly muscular—at times grotesquely muscular—figures painted in a style that blends abstract with impressionist. The figures in these paintings strike intimidating and violent poses, and are presented over backgrounds of layered and textured color. However, the most striking feature of these paintings are the unreal, bulging, chorded muscles of the Nephilim—showing the unhealthy excess of power each possesses.

“The Nephilim is basically about power and how it leads to destruction and isolation. Some of the stories of the Nephilim were based off of biblical accounts, extra biblical accounts, and some of it I just made up in a growing narrative. […] The figures were all inspired by comic book art. I chose some of my favorite comic drawings as source material for the forms, mostly coming from modern Swamp Thing comics and Animal Man.

“I did a lot of experimenting with using markers, various acrylics and sealants to get the affects. Lots of back and forth between drawing with black sharpie, covering it with white paint, letting it dry, adding a sealant, adding more marker, etc. They are better to see in person because they have so many layers they actually have very thick textures. Some of them are actually quite heavy and have deep grooves.”

In much of David’s lore surrounding the Nephilim, there are themes of isolation and corruption, and we spoke about these themes in tandem together.

My primary thoughts were, does corruption lead to an isolation from the larger community? Or does isolation lead to corruption? Do we seek power because of our own corruption? Or does the search for and eventual gaining of power corrupt us?

Or, coming around to the first questions, is it powerlessness and isolation that urges us towards seeking power, and having that power as an isolated, “evicted” individual spurn us toward abuse of that power onto the community that expulsed us?

These are a complicated tangle of ideas to parse apart, and it was interesting hearing David’s take on the themes:

Doppleganger #9
Acrylic, Sharpie, Mixed Media on Canvas

“[…] I believe the corruption is both passed down and generated through personal actions. […] Though perhaps they desired to use it for good, the nature of the world must win out. Yes, their form does evolve over time. The more they use their power for evil, the more deformed their bodies become. The black form (the last in the series) is almost a purely spiritual form, but, in a sense, in the end the nephilim become fallen angles just like their fathers.

“I think power pretty much always lead to corruption, at least that’s all I’ve ever seen or experienced in this life. But I like your point that isolation could also lead to a hunger for power. A desire to change one’s destiny or perhaps hurt those who put one into a position of isolation. The thought that the ability to change circumstances and overcome others would lead to happiness is an interesting one. It’s very natural to think that way, but false I believe. […] All that being said, I don’t believe power itself is bad. I think there is a possibility of it being used for good…”

This corrupting influence—whether an inherited disfiguration or a maladaptation evolved across time—can be seen in the bodies of the Nephilim and in the heads and faces.

While the bodies certainly do have grotesquely muscular, powerful forms, it’s their heads transformed the most, and in many ways heads and faces communicate an individual’s identity.

With Nephilim #3 and #5, the rectangular and spherical-headed Nephilim, there’s a transformation to simplicity in shape, expression and simplicity, and a sort of self-dehumanization.

With Nephilim #3, the rectangular head reflects a flatness—an almost uni-dimensional, machine-like personality, devoid of warmth, compassion or empathy. It looks cold and calculating, like a computer screen, and the narrowness of its eyes and mouth might be the narrowness of its vision—it’s vision of power—and the narrowness of its ability to communicated with others—a narrowness of empathy and an inability to socially connect.

With Nephilim #5, the shape of its head is roughly spherical, but it’s like a head that’s been crudely molded and can’t decide what it is. It lacks any expression except for it’s tiny, slitted eyes and enormous, toothy mouth. This giant has lost any defining features, its vision has been narrowed to a tiny slit, and its mouth appears to be useful for little more than violence, consumption and animalistic vocalizations.

Doppleganger #8
Acrylic, Sharpie, Watercolor, Sealant on Canvas

Following a similar thread as the “Nephilim”, the “Doppelgänger” series features surreal, heavily muscled figures over a textured background of simple colors. With the “Doppelgänger” series, David pushes both the surreal musculature of his figures and a darker, more abstract vision of human nature through their entangled forms.

“The doppelgänger series is about a personal belief in the dual nature of humans. I personified it in these figures. A lot of it relates to personal inner conflicts I’ve had throughout my life. The forms are inspired by comic book art again. I did get more experimental with the forms than in the ‘Nephilim’. […]

“In my view most of the interactions are negative. Either one form dominates the other or the forms are in conflict. There is a very strong undercurrent of violence and domination. When I drew details on the forms, I got more abstract with the muscle forms sometimes making it close to a vegetative or organic bubbly form. This was all very intuitive. I used the basic shapes as my guide but created lines from a moment to moment basis.”

The “Doppelgänger” series immediately struck me when I first look through it. There’s a tremendous intensity to many of these forms, and the various emotions of each piece seem to be ripping out of each figure’s bodies (perhaps the internal force that’s turning these subject’s muscles into such grotesque shapes). The extreme musculature shows the power of these forces, but their inhumanness and occasional grotesqueness show how they warp the subject into something equally inhuman or grotesque.

As David alluded to in his explanation of the pieces, with the doppelgängers, there seems to be this sort of reversion into a chaotic state, where the bodies of the figures are turning into stringy, tubular, or wet, bubbling, oozing states. The figures seem to be returning to the chaotic state of nature—to the bubbling, swampy morasses of life that we come from: the violent, grotesque state of nature modernity often tries to ignore, but that is ever present.

Doppelgänger #7, the white-background doppelgänger, is beating its identical twin—its clone, copy or its self—into a thick, viscous, frothing foam. The muscles on its body are on the verge of bursting—of popping with blood and bulging flesh—and even parts of its body seem to be turning into this bubbling, oozing material.

Doppleganger #3
Acrylic, Sharpie, Sealant on Canvas

There’s this blend of violence done unto the self, or possibly of self-domination and self-submission, and this reversion into a primordial, hyper-violent chaotic state—the animalistic and grotesque reality humans have emerged from.

Doppelgänger #3, the red-background doppelgänger, similarly has this reversion into a dissolving, deindividualizing state. The muscles have lost any real resemblance to a healthy body, and are more like piles of intestines strung up on a skeleton frame. The two bodies are intertwined to the point where its difficult to tell which limbs belongs to which body, and, at certain points, there seems to be an entire dissolution of a concrete, bodily form. There’s just this fleshy, dripping entanglement where individuality reverts to primordial flesh and organs.

Finally, there is David’s “Siren/Muse” series, which is David’s latest and still ongoing series. Here, David takes a large leap from the style of his previous two series, but still retains elements of his figurative style, and explores similarly dark and all-too-human themes.

“For the ‘Siren/Muse’ set, I really wanted to go with more colorful figures that were females. I didn’t want them to look aggressive or violent, so I gave them more of an anime inspired smooth appearance. I also wanted to convey a sense of ‘fake-ness’. […].

“This series is basically about a potential danger in the pursuit of beauty. Hence the toxic creatures. It made sense to meld music and art. They accomplish a lot of the same things. I also liked exploring the myth of the sirens and the myth of the muses. I do think they’re related. I guess with the siren there’s a draw toward sex that ends in destruction. With the muses there is a desire for inspiration and the ability to create perhaps at the expense or abuse of the muse herself. I think those are both about creation in a way. Both can end in the abortion of a desire. Both can consume and ultimately destroy. I really love contradiction and contrast.”

When I was first reading David’s explanation of this, I was reminded of story arc in the Sandman comic book series where an author has kidnapped one of the Greek muses and sexually exploits her in order to find inspiration for his books. I brought this up with David, and found that this was indeed part of the inspiration for this series.

“So glad you mentioned the Sandman story about the muse. That actually was what first got this idea for the siren/must series percolating in my mind! What an amazing story (by the way, Sandman is probably my fav comic series of all time). I was so drawn to the idea of someone abusing a muse in order to get inspiration it made me think that perhaps that is a deeper truth about the lengths people will go to grasp fame or fortune, much like the writer did in that story.

“It also melds the idea of sexual dominance, but really again just a picture of abuse for personal gain. I guess when you think in terms of a siren though the tables are turned. The female is in the position of power.”

Siren/Muse #1
Acrylic on Canvas
Siren/Muse #1
Acrylic on Canvas

As with our conversations over David’s other sets, our conversation of “Siren/Muse” delved down its own rabbit hole.

In modernity, there is a tension between fact and opinion. This tension likely goes deeper than most people realize, but one of the most obvious tensions comes from beauty and aesthetic. Can something be objectively beautiful? Is there anything that can be said to be truly beautiful?

Or is everything regarding beauty and aesthetic just an arbitrary illusion of the mind? Is there a tangible reality or truth to beauty? Or is it all arbitrary opinion?

“I do think there is definitely something objective about beauty, but I’m not really sure what it is. I just know that people often agree on what is beautiful, but if it were totally subjective maybe that wouldn’t happen as often. For me though, beauty is just what I find physically appealing to my eyes. The structure, composition, color, framing, etc. so many things go into it. And the more refined your eye becomes the more you are able to appreciate beauty, like a fine wine.

“Personally, I’m obsessed with beautiful things because I love to consume them with my eyes. It’s much like enjoying a good steak or tasty beer. It’s very visceral to me and just flat out pleasing to my soul. But beauty can also be a marker that points to something beyond it. A deeper truth or a more lofty ideal. This is what creates such strong emotional reactions and perhaps has something to do with why people sometimes seek to destroy it.”

David’s “Siren/Muse” set has only just been started, with two completed pieces so far. One features a blonde-haired pop singer with green snakes emerging from behind her—similar, I would say, to not only the sirens and muses, but the gorgons as well. We have a beautiful woman, whose face implies pleasure, in front of a microphone onstage, with snakes surrounding her and facing the audience while her eyes are closed.

There’s a sort of narcissism here, being the center of attention and finding pleasure in one’s own existence as the center of attention. There are also a number of quasi-sexual phallic elements here, one being the microphone in front of the woman’s lips, the others being the snakes emerging from the woman herself. The microphone is where the singer projects herself—the center of her self-pleasuring narcissism, as well as the tool by which she holds the crowd’s attention.

Every man in the crowd might wish they could take the place of the microphone, and let the singer speak—or more—to them. The microphone might actually be the stand-in or an idol representing every man in the audience, almost like a voodoo doll by which she can manipulate from afar.

But this also comes at a cost, as everyone in the audience is ogling her. She loses her identity as well, and becomes simply an object of desire, just like the microphone is every man being turned into a tool to derive attention from. She is no longer who she was before she got dressed, put on her makeup and went on stage, she has become a sexual and artistic or musical object—her trade for siphoning the audience’s attention.

The snakes also hold additional meaning, as the snakes are what make her unapproachable. Though all eyes are on the singer, though every man in the audience wishes he could be the microphone she sings to, she is also writhed in fear and danger. Just as when we see someone we are attracted to, and freeze in fear, unable to think clearly or do anything but act like an idiot, we see the beautiful woman on stage singing to us, but we also see the fear of death around her like a venomous halo.

How often then do we seek to abuse, deface and destroy these beautiful things we are afraid of?

At times, these living idols, these people made living statues, are sources of inspiration. At other times, they are source of zealotry and obsession. At other times, they are the sources of our fear, contempt and resentment—the objects of our hate as much as of our love.

The second “Siren/Muse” piece possesses similar elements, though I won’t delve too deeply into these. The emotion of the singer is more lively, more energetic. Rather than snakes, the singer is surrounded with bees like loyal drones. With the first painting, the color scheme is roughly green, black and golden/yellow, which is somewhat suggestive of a dragon guarding gold. The second painting, by contrast, is primarily violet, blue and yellow, which contrasts cooler colors with the more energetic yellow body and red eyes of the bees. So, there is a calming effect, but there is still an awareness of danger. In the second painting, there is also the sexual implication of the microphone.

David’s art journey is still relatively early in its story. His works are still experimental in many ways, and his style and talent are still developing. However, the works he’s made so far are quite impressive. The emotions and ideas he’s able to capture in his paintings have drawn my own eye, and seem to be catching many others’ eyes. It will be interesting to see where he goes next with his “Siren/Muse” set, but it will also be interesting to see where he goes both with his work and with the themes he explores after this set.

There was much more we both could have talked about with each other regarding both his artwork and the themes surrounding his artwork (and, also, the long list of comic books we both love). Hopefully we can extend some of these conversations in the future.

In addition to his artwork on @davidcoffey_figz on Instagram, David also has many other pieces, primarily commission pieces, on his Instagram page @davidcoffey_artstudio. There are many beautiful paintings here as well, many of which follow a more impressionist or post-impressionist style. Please give his work a look and a like, and if you enjoy his creations, give his pages a follow.