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Relics of Prester John
Brian GrisonMay 23 - July 12, 2014
Prester John is the threatening anti-hero ‘other’ in the boys’ adventure novel, Prester John, written by the English author, John Buchan, in 1910. I read the book when I was about twelve years old. Until the mid 1970s I did not know that Prester John was an actual historic, albeit fictional, twelfth-century ruler of a lost Christian kingdom. I did not know that until the nineteenth century, explorers, missionaries, diplomats and mercenaries had searched in vain for his fabulous kingdom in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia.
In fact, though the history of the legend is much older, the popular culture version was invented by an Italian traveler in the Middle East in letters he wrote to friends back home. Perhaps to reverse the joke, or because the letters contained such an interesting story (like Marco Polo’s adventures in China) his friends published the letters, and fantastical story of Prester John became popular with ordinary Europeans.
In the background of these drawings Prester John, as an invisible atavar or idea standing in for the artist, is the fabricator of endless exotic mysteries and meaningless fantasies. The drawings are either real or false biographic or cultural relics, depending on how one relates to the meaning of memory, truth, imagination and the ‘real’ in art. The frightening charismatic ‘other’ created by John Buckan is a metaphor of the rich and sometimes dangerous interplay between the real and false that both disrupts and liberates the psyche of the artist who conjures the meaning of art. This condition of meaningful ambivalence is the appropriate condition of contemporary artists.
Because my discovery of history, religion, science and fiction was mostly though books, these drawings resemble illustrations that have been leafed through by generations of readers and doodlers. The marginalia represents the constant shift back and forth between the mundane and imaginary that distracts the viewer/reader – as well as the artist – from the concentration required for observation, perception, insight, creation and production.
The Italian titles of the drawings are quotes from an imaginary conversation between lovers who have reconciled after many years of separation and silence. They reminisce about the meaning of love, youth, the imagination, morality and mortality. Because I’m interested in words and writing, the titles point to the soul of the drawings, which is that life, real or imagined, is the accumulation of relics, both real and unreal.