Frank Moore creates paintings that examine humanity's relationship to the natural world. For nearly two decades, he has explored the connections between human health and the environment. This exploration has led Moore to tackled issues of race, gender, sexuality, AIDS and most recently, genetic sciences and the role of fossil fuels in America. His early artistic influences were as diverse as Willem deKooning, Paul Cadmus and the lesser-known Italian Surrealist Alberto Savino. His current inspirations are from nature and contemporary information sources including newspapers, magazines and scientific reports which Moore collects into an archive. A quick glance at his archive might reveal a shiny square of chartreuse paper, an image of a logjam, a story on windmills, a magnified photograph showing the symbiotic relationship between aphids and ants or a scientific report on genetic engineering. Eventually, much of this material makes its way into his work, either as an idea or a rendered image. In more complex paintings, a number of these images may be combined.
Creating a space where an individual can contemplate social, biological and political change is Moore's primary goal. His space exists conceptually between art and the natural world--nature, culture, science and sexuality. Robert Rauschenberg said, "Painting relates to both life and art. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)" (1) For Moore, the challenge is not to act in the gap between art and life but to inject it with meaning. After receiving research support from the research and advocacy group "Great Lakes United," Moore was surprised years later to receive a request from the organization to use an image of Niagara, 1994, for the cover of its annual report. With this Ring..., 2000, appeared on the cover of a bound Academy of Sciences report on the role of women in Science. These requests and many like them indicate an interest for strong artistic renderings of important issues outside the art world.
Moore is a virtuoso painter for whom technique is a secondary to subject matter. His lively and beautiful paintings often embody terrible truths. They are methodically and carefully crafted with many layers of painting and glazing and often decorated with frames made from an odd assortment of materials—pinecones, corn, glass beads and seed packets. While some see these paintings as simply beautiful and/or agree with their message, others may be challenged by the activist undertones of the subject matter. That is the intriguing paradox of Moore’s painting; visual seduction followed by a conceptual punch.
The series of paintings from the early 1990s inspired by Niagara Falls exemplifies Moore’s affinity to paradox. During a visit to Niagara, Moore rode the tourist boat Maid of the Mists beneath the falls. Being submerged in the foam and mist led him to ponder the water’s makeup. This led to a discovery that the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory was monitoring more than 350 different chemicals in the river. In and on the water of the paintings, Moore has silk-screened symbols for the chemicals, protozoa, bacteria and fungus, indicating the natural ingredients of the water and its less welcome additives. Less than a decade after these paintings were completed, it is acknowledged that water quality around the world is severely compromised. “As a friend of mine observed, ‘water is the oil of tomorrow,” says Moore. (2)
As one of the world’s great natural wonders, Niagara is the quintessential garden. However, because of numerous hydroelecitc facilities and decades of chemical dumping, it is also severely polluted and designated as one of the first Superfund sites. The awe-inspiring falls can be shut off like a kitchen faucet, an irony Moore acknowledges with his frames made of copper pipes and valves, a metaphor for humanity’s domination of nature. The awesome terror of the thundering falls has been replaced by a different terror, a threat to health.
Lining the shoreline of Niagara, 1994, are the alchemical symbols of many of the chemicals—mercury for instance—which corrupt the water. “Alchemy is washed up as a science,” notes Moore, “but it had as its goal is the shadow of the sun and the soul is the shadow of God. This sidebar to the picture indicates a nostalgia for science based on philosophy and ethics.”
In the Maid of the Mist, 1994/95 and other Niagara paintings and drawings, the hooded figures, through garbed in protective rain gear, resemble cloaked monks ministering rites at a sacred site. The tourist in Niagara, 1994/95 (page 8), whose head is replaced by a video camera, has the experience of looking filtered through a lens of technology. He is an avatar for the generations whose visual intelligence has been formed by television and electronic entertainment.
Moore uses drawings and studies to develop his imagery. One can often trace a line of thought moving through the studies to the final painting. The three works, Alight, Study for Release and Release, all from 1999, document a progression of ideas examining the continuum of life, death and transformation. Completed after a bout with mitochondria toxicity, the three works are both autobiographical and allegorical.
The earliest of the three, Alight, was inspired by a well-known Edna St. Vincent Millay quatrain, which is simultaneously a celebration of life and premonition of death:
My candle burns at both ends:
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
In Alight, a man's arm reaches the length of the picture. It is languid, like the hand of Adam reaching out to God in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Mushrooms sprout from dark spots on the skin and fire explodes from the fingers as "the ultimate release of energy." Mushrooms decomposing in the forest are both a thing of beauty and a metaphor for the cycle of life and death. The mushrooms stop growing when the organic material is exhausted.
The second work of the series, Study for Release, takes the allegory beyond decomposition to ideas of sustaining life. Instead of mushrooms, grasses grow from swamp-like patches along the arm, regenerating the earth with their seeds. In the final version, the arm, done to the scale of the artist's arm, is set against a blue sky; the palette is considerably lighter and the arm more fully realistic. Fewer grasses sprout from the patches, and at the end of the fingertips, brightly colored butterflies flutter through the air in a whoosh of activity. Scattered throughout the painting are small depictions of the various stages in the life of the Monarch: egg, caterpillar, pupa and, finally, the butterfly in its full glory.
One can consider Alight as a modern-day vanitas where the viewer can contemplate human mortality. In succeeding versions, death is no longer an end point but becomes part of an endless cycle of rebirth and decay. Unlike the typical Dutch still life painting in which a candle or skull alludes to the brevity of life, Moore draws on the butterfly-the symbol of transformation-to suggest rebirth and regeneration.
Lullaby, 1997 (page 11), came out of Moore's desire to make a pure, monochromatic painting that was about light and sensuality instead of one that contained a specific message. In this fantasy dreamscape, a herd of tiny buffalo grazes on a white field that is both a winter landscape and a bed covered in crisp white sheets. Moore again plays with scale and idiosyncratic spatial relationships that give the painting a childlike, naive quality. Flecks of perfect snowflakes dot the surface conveying the peaceful hush of a snowy evening. The title comes from the well-known song Moore's mother sang to him as a lullaby when he was a child ("Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam .. "). The buffalo invokes visions of a people who had a symbiotic and balanced relationship with nature and, like the eagle, symbolizes early America. "The serenity and beauty of the prairie shows an ecosystem in balance," says Moore. "It is a vision of American Arcadia."
If Lullaby conveys a "bright, sweet energy," the series on volcanoes explores a dark and vibrant power. Volcanoes remain among the most terrifying and beautiful natural wonders of the world; unlike Niagara, which has been tamed by humanity, the volcano's power has not yet been harnessed. Several years ago, Moore visited friends on the island of Stromboli, one of the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Naples, Italy, to see an active volcano. The trip inspired extensive research on the phenomenon and a sustained interest not only in the volcano's majestic power but in the information it may provide about the earliest form of life, particularly its role in spawning amino acid chains, precursors to RNA and DNA.
In Study for La Boccetta III, 2001 (back cover image), double helixes of DNA snake their way from the chamber up the channels of hot lava as if they were cooked in the beaker of some mad scientist. There is an inherent sexual component to the volcano. As someone who has been HIV positive for many years, it is quite possible the volcano, which teems with life and yet has the power to destroy, is emblematic for Moore.
Moore's paintings may change compositionally as his research progresses. For instance, he initially read about theories that suggested life occurred in primordial oceans heated by volcanic eruptions. Later, he discovered information that placed this activity deep in the thermal vents. Moore addresses both theories in a mirrored image of the volcano in which the boiling chamber below echoes the explosion of gasses and lava above. Either way, earliest life probably had its genesis in the volcano and that, along with its visual solidity, provides sustaining inspiration for Moore.
Recently, Moore, a New York artist who has a farm near Deposit, New York, has explored the paradox of the farm, a large-scale and cultivated garden. The prototypical farm conjures up nostalgic visions of a bucolic landscape with its particular smell, pace and ambiance. The reality is that many farms are mechanized, chemically dependent and homogenized industries.
In Black Pillow, 2002 (cover image), a young farmer leans against the frame of the picture, holding a gas nozzle which spews petroleum onto a cornfield. This farmer is not Grant Wood's spent farmer from American Gothic; he is young and virile and filled with life.
The visual impact of the painting is immediate even if a specific reading is not. The amount of fossil fuel needed to produce one bushel of com has been estimated at anywhere from one to six gallons. As environmental activist Michael Pollan observed in "This Steer's Life," "Growing the vast quantities of com used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil—1 1/2 gallons for every bushel. So the modern feedlot is really a city floating on a sea of oil.” (3) Today's farm requires fossil fuels to manufacture fertilizer, power machinery and transport the final product. The short-term benefit is the corn gets to market more economically. The long-term effects are pollution, soil destruction and the depletion of a non-renewable resource.
Black Pillow has an almost primitive play with spatial relationships. The corn, a pool of petroleum and the farmer occupy the foreground like a visual screen. The roots of the corn are exposed, as if one can see beneath in the black pillow, or perhaps the roots themselves are not convinced of their placement. In the middle ground, pieces of cast-off machinery are scattered across the picture plane, like glyphs with coded messages. A farm with its big barn and tall silos floats in the distance, silhouetted with clean, precisionist lines. This silk-screen image is from a photograph of an actual farm near Moore's that is actively engaged in genetic engineering. Moore loves the idea of one thing becoming another and with his surrealist leanings freely engages in visual play-ears of corn morph into computer keyboards and mouses while in the sky a bird transforms into a satellite.
The philosophical doppelganger to Black Pillow is Study for Magic Carpet, 2002. This painting celebrates the growing counter-trend to industrialized farming—organic farms. In Study for Magic Carpet, the same young farmer floats on a trapezoidal segment of earth. The sod is fecund with nutrients and worms. Grass and flowers blanket the plot of land on which he sits. The identical farm from Black Pillow—a visual contradiction to the lush organic soil—hovers on one side of the living, floating carpet while on the other a horse-drawn tractor—symbolizing a traditional relationship of the farmer and the land—moves through the sky like a modern-day Apollo. The farmer is in his element, he celebrates the earth—the sensual self combined with agrarian life. "This then is life," said the poet Walt Whitman, who fully embraced humanity's transcendental relationship with the land. "Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions. How curious! How real! Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun. "(4)
Beacon, 2001, is one of Moore's most visceral and powerful paintings to date. Its heroic quality brings to mind historical and political works from previous centuries. One thinks of Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, 1819, in which the lowest echelon of the ship's passengers were set adrift at sea after the sinking of the naval frigate Medusa. The painting, like Moore's, was loaded with social and political commentary.
In this painting, the setting is surreal. A young man lying in a hospital bed floats adrift in a dark sea, attached by a lifeline to an IV and other hospital paraphernalia. As happens in the nocturnal wanderings of a hospital stay, an octopus tentacle offers up a syringe filled with green phosphorescent liquid while an elongated hand mysteriously emerges from the depths with a bottle of pills. Across the way, a lighthouse beams out double helixes, symbols of genetic medicines that have been so successful in the fight against diseases such as AIDS, cancer and diabetes. A second light, the moon, beams across the sea, offering up its own source of hope. Genetic intervention in the medical field, contrary to its questionable implications in food production, has resulted in life-saving medicine and procedures. If a sick body is a blight on Eden, new areas of treatment may be one way to regain the balance between humanity and the environment.
Early in the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp suggested art return to the service of the mind. Over the next one hundred years, his art and philosophy, which placed a premium on the "idea," spawned Conceptual Art. As an activist and intellectual, Moore has something to say and looks to painting, with all of its rich traditions, to recapture the arena of ideas and themes. Moore sees societal issues through the lens of personal experience. He combines concrete facts with his own brand of visionary realism set on a beautifully crafted stage. Through his art, he has defended life: against AIDS, against pollution, against big business and against deficiencies in health care. His defense of life is beauty. And through beautifully rendered images, combined with powerful social commentary, he has reinvigorated painting with stories of our time.
-Sue Scott, Adjunct Curator of Contemporary American Art
April 17, 2002
1. Kristin Stiles and Peter Selz, ed. Contemporary Art A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, "Robert Rauschenberg Untitled Statement,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 321.
2. All quotes are taken from an interview between artist and author December, 2002, and subsequent conversations in April 2001.
3. Michael Pollan, "This Steer's Life," The New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002, p. 50.
4. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam Books, 1983, p. 11.