The Diablo is in the Details

Book Review: Dusty Diablos: Folklore, Iconography, Assemblage, Olé by Michael deMeng (2010 Northlight Books)

The Newest book from “awesome-blahzhuh” artist Michael deMeng

It’s hard to describe tropical breezes if you haven’t felt them

So  goes the advice of Gail Cohen in “How to write a Guidebook.” Dusty Diablos is testament to Michael deMeng’s thriving on the tropical breezes of Mexico. Part travel guide, part technique primer and (big) part Mexican folklore tome, Michael’s newest book is a satisfying read for your inner artist and armchair traveler.

I found Secrets of Rusty Things , his first book, to be an irresistible title, and hence my appreciation of all things deMeng began. Carmi Cimcata hosted a class in Toronto with Michael in 2007 where I found him to be a truly giving teacher with a great sense of humor. The conversational style of Michael’s books make for an easy read. He tells stories, shares histories and runs off on tangents that let you get to know how he acquired the bits and oddities that make up his art. Whether in print or in person, Michael inspires a desire to discover the layers of meaning in his work and your own.

How Strange and Wonderful…

Underwood deviled ham anyone?

Committing the sin of reading only the pictures in this book, and not the words would be cheating yourself out of the wonderfulness of it. The cover shot is of El Diablo, yet the pages are filled with stories and projects that tell of saints and virgins (and other icons from his self-described ‘buffet’ belief system ). A quote from Michael on what he loves about Mexico is reflected in the layers of meaning in his work:

…Here, art is a continuum of the sacred to the garish. In many instances, these descriptions flow together, like an old wooden saint surrounded by a halo of neon. The traditional flows into the unconventional; the sacred flows into the meretricious; the indigenous flows into the post-Columbian. Opposites aren’t divided but are instead fluid, ever-moving and evolving.

Michael takes some of the confounding, contradicting details of Mexican culture and celebrates them in art. He sees it as his job  “… to interpret from (his) unique perspective.. to bring something fresh to the concept.”  He labels himself “a gringo in Mexico” and pays homage to the need to filling the creative well by going to a place that “made him feel alive.” The first mini-project is the bottle cap milagro. Milagros are little (often metal) symbols that represent a wide range of wishes, prayers or needs. They are Mexican icons that have crossed over into north american crafting and make for an excellent, easy starting point for this journey. Michael treats these to a swoosh of Serial Killer Red or Uszhhh (his “Usual” color mix of Mars Black and Quinacridone Gold) paints, and a dusty bit of art is born.

Michael goes on to celebrate the “everyday mystical” or “beautiful sadness” in projects like La Lloróna, Ex Voto, Anima Sola, Taxicab Shrine or Solar Dish. He wanders from project to project by giving a bit of back-story or a touch of history and then a fair sampling of his “process.” Along the way, techniques like paint washes, the “Burning Flesh Trick,” or the “Mysterious Frozen Caveman Trick” are clearly illustrated. The styling of the book builds upon the presentation of Rusty Things, but seems even more in synch with Michael’s style. Color stories jump from one project to the next. The photography of the art is crisply styled with ample close-up images to satisfy the student reader. Things never get overly serious with materials lists that include chips & salsa as well as the Lord of the Rings DVD.

Isla de las Muencas

One highlight of the book is a visit to Isla de las Mueñcas (the Island of Dolls). (See Michael’s visit here.) The unique back story of La Lloróna is haunting, kitschy and culturally unlike anything found in the multitude of mixed-media crafting books today. (And it can lead you down a deep rabbit hole on YouTube!)

While I do not see myself venturing too far into assemblage, I like the addition of this book to my library. It is rich in creative keys (fill the well, use what is available, the visual power of symbols, a piece is ‘done’ when it stops ‘annoying,’ in the studio- nothing is sacred (supply wise), messiness is next to deMenginess, & you never know when you will stumble upon a box of “broken man dolls”- so keep your eyes open when you travel). Dusty Diablos is chock full of details of intrigue: cultural mythology, insight into the artistic process, even a recipe for Mezcal con Sangrita. While Michael’s style is his own, the details that he shares are worth the read (offered with a wink and a laugh that makes art-making fun again!).

The class that I had with Michael way back in 2007 stands as one of my favourites. I had the chance to learn from a giving and supportive teacher, but more importantly,  I was learning something outside of my everyday creative “safe-zone.” The lessons that we learn from these travels to strange places (culturally or creatively), fill the well deeply.

P.S. More of Michael’s work, “weird little art universe” and “artist carnival” can be found in Rice Freeman-Zachery’s Living the Creative Life and her podcast with Michael.

Click here to go to her blog or here for her MdeM podcast.

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