Revisiting the Moby Dick Paintings / by Chris Hall

Between 1997 and 1998, and again in 2006, I made several paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I had just read Moby Dick for the first time in 1997, after reading that it was a favorite among the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Pollock and Motherwell.  Moby Dick had a dramatic effect on me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.  These are some behind the scenes commentary on the creation and meaning of some of the work:

1.  In the first one, Tashtego (2007), I discovered the whale and bird (which the character Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod in the closing scene) by accident.  It was part of my Divination Series, a series of 16 collages where I tore up pieces of paper, photocopies of pages from a book on Marc Chagall, actually, and glued the pieces down randomly in order to discover subject matter and composition.  

2.  Confrontation (2007) came next.  It is pretty much a straight forward symbolist piece.  Like Tashtego, and many of my other works from this time, my subject matter and composition was not pre-determined.  Once again, I discovered the whale by accident.  I was painting the ground of the composition for the skinned horse to walk on, and somehow it transformed itself into the specter of the whale.  It is one of my many visionary pieces from this time, and the meaning of this work is an enigma, even to me.

3.  The portrait of Ahab (1998) follows. Ahab is presented as a contorted and painful figure, with the ever-present eye of the whale figuring behind him.  In my hot-blooded youthful ignorance, I had come to identify somewhat with Ahab and his madness.  After some meditation I realized that this was unhealthy.  If you identify with an archetype, your fate becomes a self fulfilled prophecy.  I would later decide that I did not want to go down like Ahab.

4.  The Whale (1998) is a straight up Expressionist painting.  It is a bloody revenge fantasy, from the point of view of Ahab, who wanted to revisit violence on the world for its evils and for mankind’s suffering, revenge on that nameless thing that the White Whale had come to symbolize for him.  On the tail of the whale, the Pequod makes its appearance, and foreshadowing the Pequod’s demise, the whale’s flipper transforms itself into a tombstone.  

5.  The Whale Hunt (1998) closes out the Moby Dick paintings of 1997-1998.  If The Whale is hot with subjective energy, the point of view of Ahab, then The Whale Hunt is the outsider, universal perspective.  The turbulent white sea brings forth notions of the universe as sublime, indifferent nihilism.  The churning sea is filled with seman (sperm and egg feature in the composition), milk, and blood . . . it is the source of life, and in the case of the Pequod’s crew, the source of death.  The Pequod makes its appearance in the upper left, and opposite the Pequod is the Sun (which doubles as the previously mentioned egg).  The Pequod is sinking; it is being consumed by the sea and the indifferent all devouring universe.  No one gets out alive.  But where is the whale?  The whale is there, because the whale symbolizes the universe, it makes up the entire painting.  The Sun/Egg serves as the all seeing eye of the whale.  

6.  For Ahab Monomaniac (2006) I thought I would once again revisit Ahab, from a more sober, mature perspective.  Somehow I lost my way, and the result is a bit of humor.  It is critical of Ahab (and by extension, my youthful self).  At the time I was learning how to deal with suffering and pain with a sense of humor.  If Ahab had developed a sense of humor, Moby Dick would have ended very differently.  

7.  Ocean #9 (2006) is another sober, mature look at the subject. I had wanted to illustrate Moby Dick, without illustrating its narrative elements.  What I decided on was to do a series of works illustrating the moods of some of the chapters, and have this reflected in psychological seascapes.  The composition of each of the works was pretty similar, the point of view forward from the masthead of the vast and open sea.