Behind the Art: 19th Nervous Breakdown
By now you already know that at heart I’m a hard rocking guy.
But as a “boomer of a certain” age, I like to stay on the cutting edge of the hottest bands in the world today, like I Prevail, Rival Sons and Grammy winners Halestorm.
Ironically, a few months after Covid 19 hit, I woke up one morning with an old Rolling Stones song in my head — 19th Nervous Breakdown.
And when I say old, I mean old. It hit No. 2 on the US charts in…drumroll roll please…early 1966, long before even the parents of most of my art fans were born.
That song seemed to crystalize what was going on with all the financial panic, economic shutdowns and high-anxiety media coverage about the pandemic.
As luck would have it, I had already embarked on a series of paintings inspired by the Coronavirus. It’s called the “Spirits of Babylon.”
For 19th Nervous Breakdown, I painted very tight clouds with soft oranges and blues, color more reminiscent of Impressionism. The idea here was to suggest a summer sky with an impending storm. And by keeping them rounded, the clouds almost look molecular, as though we are seeing the virus up close.
I had in mind to juxtapose the spirit figures that are in every painting in this series with an urban background. Their faces are covered but I avoided giving them masks because that would impede the timeless sense I’m going for here.
For the buildings, I gave two specific addresses based off the number 19. I then turned that into another double statement by making a third building 911. It’s both our emergency phone number and the day of the terrorist attacks in New York.
This gives the piece added symbolism because Covid has claimed more lives than that attack by far and also pretty much shut down the whole economy.
I thought it was important to bring up the financial angle and let the viewer know I had New York in mind. So, I painted the word MONY vertically on one of the buildings.
It’s a very specific reference in two ways. First, is the fact that we’re talking about Mutual of New York.
Second, and in keeping with my love of allusions, that MONY sign in New York inspired the title for one of the great hits in rock n’roll history. That’s right, it’s Mony Mony, first by Tommy James and then by Billy Idol.
To give the viewer the sense that New York is in decline, at least at that time, I painted XIX across the top of the buildings. I felt that using Roman Numerals would convey a subtle point about a failing empire.
Once again, I separated the central figures in the foreground by a physical barrier…it could be a river, a creek or just an energy flow.
In fact, they are once again pointing toward each other and have sparks coming out of their hands — as though literally trying to summon the energy to bridge a big gap.
At the top of three buildings, I put faces that you might see on an ancient totem pole. To me they could be spirits watching over us or stoic figures taking it all in or even ghosts looking down on our Covid-19 world.
Finally, I really like the sense of perspective the road between the buildings and the Babylon figures conveys. It gives the painting extra rhythm and, more importantly, the viewer a sense of hope as though we can escape from this 19th Nervous Breakdown.