Michael Woodcock as God On Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, the extraordinarily gifted artist Michael Woodcock ended his tenure on planet earth. Nathan pays tribute to his good friend in this audio essay previously broadcast on the February 4, 2011 edition of the KUCI fm radio program, The SoCal Byte.
Michael lowers the fly swatter like some gear-driven extension growing from his arm socket, sets aside his Woodcock Blue paint and adjusts his Saint Louis Cardinal’s cap. God is stalking a fly. I’ve seen him hunt down the tiny bastards before — here in his Claremont studio, at the Apple Pan in Los Angeles, at the Art Center in Huntington Beach, at Skull Rock in Joshua Tree, at the Charles Eames Studio, at the Quaker Religious Society of Friends.
"Don’t move, Piggy,” God says to the fly. If the fly is Piggy, which omnipotent being is Michael? Dionysus? Vishnu? Allah? Yahweh? My mind makes a sharp U-turn at the literal, races toward the literary and slams on the brakes at William Golding’s Nobel-prize winning Beelzebubbian novel that caught the tension between culturalized conformity and individual creativity, “Lord of the Flies.”
As if to distract the buzzing insect, Michael points to his painting awash in dark red, “Three Old Chinese Art Critics," and explains to me that the best Chinese art historians all lived in a space smaller than his studio. He continues, “Now, there a number of ways to read that. One is the culture. Two is that in having to live a little space like that, you have enough room for a typewriter, books, flies and a hooker, but not for unnecessary distractions. You can do your job.”
In addition to inciting creative thought and independent expression in a world of culturalized conformity, part of Michael’s time is spent acting like a Professor Emeritus (having enjoyed 20 years as a faculty member at Pitzer College in Claremont, California). “This idea of teaching for X number of years — for some of us that’s really important,” he says, “because it’s how you earn the credibility inside your own gut to be the thing you could have been doing all along with less credibility.”
As part of the Creative Studies Field Group at a notoriously Liberal Arts institution, Michael excelled. The scroll to Dandy’s Inferno (a film by Antonio de Los Reyes, Gerit Vandenberg and Mary Allan) says it all: “Michael Woodcock as God.” Indeed, we witness cinematic proof. In the film, Michael sits enthroned on Mount Olympus. He wears a giant chicken head. A cat seeks his audience.
Here in the concrete world, Michael is a God known by many names: Tracy the First; Seeker of the Perfect Pink; Supreme Erector of Mysterious Signs on Foothill Boulevard; Professor of Aesthetic Foodstuff. Art is instinct for this God. His credentials are for his own belief in his own self. The rest of us take him for granted.
Back in his studio, Michael pilots his wheelchair, checking colors, browsing books, snacking on cheese, feeding his dog. “Say ‘art,’” barks Michael. Molly the dog yaps “Art.” Truth is spoken at God’s studio. There’s no place for lying dogs.
In Michael’s artistic output there is an unsurpassed honesty and inventiveness. His work plays with convention. Yet, although the embodied Michael displays a spectacularly dry sense of humor, to think of his creations as humorous one-liners is a sin. “What I want,” he says “is for somebody I respect to look at one of these paintings and, after a minute or two, say ‘that’s the most beautiful dumb painting I’ve ever seen.’”
In spite of his subliminal God complex, Michael doesn’t pretend to have an answer or some deep philosophical position. For him the perfect moment is in the unexpected — no assumptions, just creative instinct. Once, he accidentally caught a glimpse of his painting “St. Joseph’s Day” — a sublime grouping of swallows — without initially recognizing his own work. “This image just jump out at me,” he says ecstatically. “I was looking for a group of things, but this image just jumped out at me, and I thought ‘OOOOh man, that’s exquisite.’ It was a charming moment. Ironically, that was the year that the swallows didn’t come back to Capistrano.”
The Gods sing praises of their miracles to cover their own culpabilities in our failings. So may we be released from the responsibility of having to understand why everything happens the way that it does. May this freedom open us to new perceptions. And may we have the wisdom to celebrate the most beautiful dumb paintings we’ve ever seen.
The swatter comes down. The fly doesn’t know what hit him.