November 10, 2012

Requiem for the Immortal

Detail of The Voluptuous Horror of Metaphor by Ken Weaver, 2012
This is an extraordinary project by an extraordinary creative couple, both painters and performers, using the element of perfume to express their philosophy of life and creative energy. Alexis Karl has created eight perfumes based on eight paintings by Ken Weaver, whose style and life she shares most intimately. It’s a project that reveals the connection between the visual and olfactory, and also how a personal relationship can translate into creative collaboration.

They are both deep-dyed in the world of Gothicka, in a manner stylish, melancholy, ornate, sexy, ornamented to a demented degree, and gallantly brave in the face of vulnerability and death.

Generally, Ken Weaver’s paintings are hyper-real depictions of completely imaginative scenarios, repeating and patterning the beauty of individual and unique closely observed detailed scenes, with an implication of an almost fractal sense of repetitive infinity. As in fractals, there are an infinite number of curves and re-curves, something relating to the forms of a Turk’s Cap Lily, or the corkscrew curves of Chippendale 18th Century ornament, yet arranged with a sense of symmetry and equality. All things within the paintings are equally important and equally forceful in visual impact.

The paintings show beautiful women, bare flesh, a carnival/bordello décor, curves and more curves and re-curves, teardrop crystal lights, opulence and drama, while featuring anxiety and a little blood seeping through to clue you in that life is a lot more serious than simply the display of a peacock’s procreative urge. The reality of death and the anxiety of that awareness also sharpen the awareness of youth, beauty and sexuality, in the manner of the old Elizabethan sonnets. As they would say, beauty is vulnerable and death is near, so take full advantage of life before it is too late. The bright opulence set beside the tropes of darkness give all the images a sexual edge.

Alexis’ perfume interpretations of the paintings are a suite of eight, and move from intense, deep, rich, dark to bright and cashmere smooth, sometimes showing the corners of bright mint or herbs poking through. They have the feel of smooth chocolate ganache; melt-in-the-mouth pleasure-triggers. Decorative, realistic notes are assembled to arise one by one.

For me this relates to the paintings that are photo-realistic representations of imaginary scenarios, set within ornamental flourishes. The tension of beauty and pleasure is always set off all the more by darkness. The natural dangers of death and loss are represented by the sonorous base notes of each perfume, that play a prominent role and as a deep background heighten the effect of top notes that emerge against them like diamonds against black velvet.

Some of the perfumes are all high notes of such intensity they are like the opera soprano voice, penetrating the body with the vibration of emotional vitality that is close to overwhelming. All eight together are a perfume wardrobe, from piercing floral green to the deepest narcotic amber.

Speaking of natural dangers, the perfumer and her painter husband have been tirelessly and valiantly assisting close relatives and friends with the hurricane disaster fallout and Alexis herself has lost the contents of her perfume studio, flooded by the fury of the sea and winds. They both display a gallant spirit and I know that their many-faceted brightly-flashing-from-the-darkness flavor of personal expression will go on, in the midst of their compassion and loss.

The Voluptuous Horror of Metaphor
My favorite painting is The Voluptuous Horror of Metaphor, a mirror refracting its own image upon itself, containing all the decorative and ornamental flourishes humanly possible to include, within every inch. Yes, metaphor’s self reflections can carry you down a road that never ends but circles back onto itself infinitely, but then you come to understand the symbols more deeply at every turn. Alexis’ perfume is a “mixed media fragrance of jasmine, lilac, smoke and a mélange of ethereal flowers”.

For me it is a piercing green of tuberose proportions, the smoke is a distant shadow on the horizon, the top notes never-ending. It is on the very edge of cloy, without ever falling over that edge, but then that edge conveys the anxiety we all live with, that our current pleasures are so ephemeral, so as to addictively excite wanting more and more. You get more and more ornament and pleasure in that mirror of a painting, but it reveals a tense addictive quality that subliminally cautions you from falling down the mirror’s reflective but static well. Over time the smoke emerges and comes closer. This is a beautiful ornamental perfume.

The Death of Rave
The Death of Rave is a beautiful triplet portrait of a creamy fleshed young woman in intense states of emotion, naked but for an elaborate black mourning necklace. This piece of jewelry emphasizes her breasts, perfect and full in the central image and yet diminished and gone in the images beside herself. As a visual image it is not a literal illustration of anything, but for me the implication is clearly there, that sexual pride in the body can be taken away, maybe by an illness, maybe by a situation, or the forces that be in the world. Of course this image, like all the others is a Rorschach test, it reveals what’s on your mind to yourself. It could also be seen the opposite way, as summoning the forces of nature to increase the life force and sexuality, maybe through anger, maybe through intention and bravery.

The perfume is based on a forest at night with its arboreal essences used as an incantation to summon that dark fallen angel of light, Lucifer, who will give you something valuable in return for your equally valuable soul. This is a completely natural composition of clary sage, oak moss, liquid amber, fossilized amber, rose, petit grain, sur fleur, and fir balsam.

It has an evergreen camphor top note grounded by the moss and amber, smoothed by rose. For me there is a sap-like sweetness coursing through the perfume cooled by the herbaceous quality of the clary sage and fir balsam. I love those two notes, so as a personal prediliction I always love a perfume that features them prominently. This is a clarifying and bracing perfume. This could be worn to revive a tired body or spirit, to go to work or exercise or fight your battles in the world. The natural beauty of the materials are carefully composed so they stay bright and clear, and the component notes have qualities that keep them long lived on the skin, holding close to the body, but with longevity.

1000 Years After I Am Gone
1000 Years After I am Gone, as a painting, is more difficult for me. It reminds me of why I am fearful of carnival figures, clowns, and the performer/comic. There’s a side to all that extreme gaiety that seems like it might suddenly turn serious and deadly and turn on me personally. I understand it’s actually a rather common fear/phobia in children. I guess I never grew up in some ways. For me it depicts the entertainer as breaking through the brightness of the footlights and showing the dark side of tension and anxiety, to the point where blood trickles down from the jaw so tightly clenched the pain and damage are unmistakable. Performers have to give a lot of themselves to entertain us, or show us something to take us out of ourselves. Some may thrive on this extraversion, others may be depleted by it, yet still yearn to impart their spirit to others as forcefully as possible. This self-portrait of the artist showing his teeth, mouth welling with blood, shows ultimate control in its technical virtuosity, yet reveals the lifeblood effort it takes to bring us along with him where he wants to go.

The perfume by Alexis is a natural fragrance of copal, agar wood, fossilized amber, beeswax absolute, liquid amber, ambergris and immortelle. The fossilized amber from the Himalayas came from plants pressured into resin by the rise of the tallest mountains in the world during a natural cataclysm the scale of which we can’t even imagine. The earth moved beyond any earthquake we can comprehend, bringing all life forms with it and crystallizing them into a resin that is mined today for a fragrance material. It is an honor and privilege to have the experience of wearing such a material directly on the skin.

This fragrance begins with a strong dark smoke note, that softens down rapidly to the other blended elements smoothed by beeswax, the ambergris a natural gift from the oceans, and then the subtle dry herbaceous immortelle. It then remains as a complex dry and natural sweetness marrying with the skin completely. It has the quality of making your skin seem like it is emanating fragrance itself, indeed as a personal quality.

I can see how Alexis related these notes to the sense of the immortal, as all things remain even after death, and their vestiges have become fragrant materials that bond with the skin of the living so well. There is a natural wild and free quality to these notes put together. While subtle and holding close to the skin as most fully natural perfumes are, they put me in mind of a horse on the prairie running at full speed. A full extension of every effort, body and mind. As a performer may need to reach for, in order to go on with the show at all costs, out of respect for the audience.

The Art of Dying Well
The Art of Dying Well. This painting resonates for me, as I have had very recent experience as close witness to this most difficult of final acts. Coming to the end with grace and acceptance is something that usually requires a lot of support from religion and culture. It can also be done with the inner resource of accepting the natural order that rules all things. Physics says that no energy is ever destroyed, only transmuted or transformed. This painting shows personifications of our old beliefs draped in the symbols of death as colorless tomb ornaments. A beautiful youthful female angel with the wild wings of a raptor stands out against them in front of the brightest light.

Alexis in her fragrance refers to “the religion of the earth itself” with all natural materials of rosewood, Peru balsam, cassia, benzoin, and ambrette seed. There is a sweet darkness within the softened musk, and the strength and wildness of cassia uplifts the whole composition without overwhelming it or becoming too identifiably cinnamon. It is the volatile energy of cassia, not the full-on confection aspect it often wears, that acts. The Peru balsam and benzoin are similar to the middle cello notes of a chamber piece acoustically performed on stringed instruments in an echoing hall. There is a wild energy in this perfume too. The sight of the painting’s bright angel’s raptor wings must have had a strong influence on this fragrance. I again get that energetic updraft of a lively essence and a hint of spice that is grounded and held to close to the skin by velvety base notes.

Requiem for the Immortal
Requiem for the Immortal is a dramatic piece that focuses on a portrait of the artist as a performer. The artist is flanked by identical twin alluring angels grasping swords and skulls, crouching on twisted baroque columns carved in the Vatican style. They appear before a landscape divided to reveal the death’s head skull and lightening that illuminates the scene with the energy of high voltage white light. It has sinister overtones and a repetitive, symmetrical, equalized composition folding out from either side of the artist like an open book. He is grasping a bloodied weapon as he beckons the viewer closer. He appears to be the master of ceremonies that promises a violent severance of the body from the soul.

The scent is one I know well, it was the first one I received as a gift of comfort from Alexis during my recuperation from an accident this past late summer that kept me from walking much for about three weeks. It was indeed a comfort and an elegance that lightened my spirits. This newer version has less of the chocolate/velvet feel I had in the first version, and more of the prickly sensation of myrrh drenched in honey. It is a mixed media fragrance of myrrh, copal, dragon’s blood, honey, honeysuckle and amber. The defining characteristic is the honey infusing the rest of the notes.

The myrrh opens, dominating its marriage with honeysuckle, which is there to impart a light green beauty that can’t be stopped no matter what else is there to modify it. Honeysuckle is indeed a flower that like other cloying flowers such as gardenia and lily possesses the strength to come through no matter what else is in a composition to soften it. Drenching it in honey is a friendly yet brilliant move that removes the cloy but not the green freshness. The amber base becomes more evident and is grounding, while magically, the top floral note never entirely fades away.

I know from experience that this perfume is practically immortal itself, and fragrances the clothing you wear with it for an extended period of time. I have found it clinging to my robe after being away for ten days, with a lovely warming air that held the honeyed floral ornamental flourish. I find that to be so kind to the spirit on a cold autumn morning, and one of the things I most value in a perfume, that is to say, a cling to the personal articles of clothing that lasts to create further memories and experience over time.

I would apply this to my wrists and rub them on my winter coat or scarf to scent them. It does not have a huge “throw”, but enough of a fragrance halo will be created around you to enjoy through the season of windy damp cold. It will still be soft enough not to intrude or interfere with any other perfume applied that day, but perhaps give it a soft coating that will allow the emergence from outerwear to accomplish a full reveal of the current Scent of the Day (aka SOTD).

The Mourning of Lost Souls
The Mourning of Lost Souls – This painting is a particular favorite of mine, since it refers to the 18th Century Chippendale decorative style and incorporates fields of ambiguous darkness that imply reflective space. I fondly recall drawing these curves and re-curves myself for a decorative painting project in the past. I love the almost natural branch-like aspect of this decorative style that also conveys implications of wealth, history, and the preservation of the artisan’s work of the deeply skilled past. The darkened mirror is a symbol of death and mourning. People have covered mirrors for centuries in honor of the recently departed. This mirror is not draped, but is dark within itself, as if the souls that have departed haunt “the gilded cage of corporeal glory” to quote Alexis.

She created a mixed media fragrance of lily of the valley, gardenia, anis, and vanilla. As you might imagine from the note list, it is a reference to the beauty of the flowers of mourning, which are also the flowers of spring and summer; their high-keyed voices mellowed by vanilla. It is an exquisite blend that holds all the pleasures of a white floral perfume tempered by the warmth of vanilla and a very light touch of anis. Normally anis is too much for the likes of me, but here it creates a bridge between the heady white floral and the vanilla, so they marry well.

I would personally love to have a gigantic flacon of this one that never runs out, so that I might liberally apply when I crave a dose of such mellow beauty. The ornate bright frame within the painting holding the soft and deep-mirrored darkness is conveyed in olfactory form by the brightness of the floral against the roundness and subtle depth of a really good vanilla. I am even a little reminded of Estee Lauder’s Pleasures, only without the chemical edge and far more softly spoken as a perfume. The vanilla deepens a floral nectar sweetness and that makes all the difference for me.

The Trauma and Terror of Leaving

The Trauma and Terror of Leaving – an elegant woman in a beautiful robe holds the candle that illuminates her as she gazes warily at us. It appears that this is a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her soul in some form of Faustian bargain, so her tension is from an awareness and anticipation of both great loss and great gain. The quality of the decorative detail, and heightened sense of being fully alive to the next fatal step, creates a sense of danger that all the ornamental beauty in the world cannot hide. I find a sense of tradition in the style of beauty of the woman and the quality of her dress and the candle illumination. Still an air of modernity and fashion comes through in that some of her attractiveness is that of a beauty in peril of being lost. There is that essential human vulnerability but also a strong will that chooses to jump off the cliff in return for some mysterious form of devoutly desired personal power. This Faustian theme is seen frequently throughout our modern culture, only now in the modern age it has been extended to women as well as men.

The perfume is a mixed media fragrance of fig, ginger, leather, tuberose, rose, mimosa and vanilla. The fig and leather are for the human skin quality that carries the life force, while the heady floral notes reference the otherworldly, and the soft tone of vanilla is there to both hold them all together and also to reference the edge of darkness and uncertainty. The blend of dark and bright, with the dark being the final resting place of the perfume, energized by the hints of ginger and white floral, resolve into something that holds an slightly surprisingly evergreen quality. The composition has an herbaceous edge created from the accord of all the notes, yet still holding the beauty of the classic vanilla and floral referencing something of a turn of the century French perfume. I would say this perfume symbolizes the classic allure of the beautiful notes of the Perfumes Past, reaching out to you from across the leather and fig grounded present.

History in a Minor Key (image to come) – shows an empty heavily gilt ornamental chair of the Chippendale 18th Century style, worthy of a Louis XIV or some other even more powerful figure. The seduction and corruption of the imperial style, its wealth and power, all that opulence and privilege, all the ill-gained riches possessed, have forever been fatally attractive and a perfectly powerful snare that the devil might use in return for your eternal soul (or conscience, to put a modern face on it). Splendor can be overwhelming and incite lust even in the heart of a Buddhist monk at a weak moment. Independence from greed is one of the greatest freedoms, but many have crashed on the rocks of that golden shore, and brought many more down with them, too. There can be danger in beauty and opulence.

Alexis manifests the regal power in a perfume that opens with strong chocolate and tobacco notes, that soften down rapidly to reveal the blackberry, honeysuckle, vanilla, ambergris, liquid amber, and delicate spice elements. The brilliance of the ornamentation lies in the blackberry, which has a crushed ripe quality that intensifies the tobacco and chocolate muskiness. Perhaps the tobacco and chocolate refer to the wealth gained by colonial conquests. They are both such strong and addictive substances. The tobacco continues to stain the life of the perfume, richly enhancing the vanilla and ambers, as they are lit from within by the touch of spices. Though I’ve never been one to assign gender to perfumes, this one struck me immediately as masculine, though in the dry down I believe I could carry it, and with pleasure. Perhaps we all harbor an inner thirst for imperial power in our heart of hearts.

This is an exciting project, and I think the perfumer, because she knows the painter so well, married as they are, has a unique window into expressing a shared aesthetic and message together with his paintings. Alexis Karl’s background as a painter herself and her knowledge of perfume materials and all their references and history adds yet another unique personal perfumed dimension to an aesthetic journey.

I hope those in the perfume community in NYC will take the opportunity to come to the opening on November 15th at Schroeder Romero & Shredder Gallery in Manhattan, so as to see these paintings and smell these fragrances in person.

Each perfume will be in a custom etched flacon at 2 ounces of Eau de Parfum for $200, in very limited edition.

Disclosure: I received samples of the perfumes directly from the perfumer, who I consider a friend. We have collaborated on a number of creative projects together. I have seen the paintings in person at the artist’s studio.

Music to listen to perfume by:
Alexis Karl and her group Ondyne’s Demise: Where Black Flowers Bloom

For further information and an in depth understanding of modern Gothic, please see the book Gothicka, by Victoria Nelson, on the new supernatural

Images reproduced with permission of the artist, Ken Weaver, who reserves all rights, 2012.
Copyright 2012 Lucy Raubertas, All Rights Reserved


KC said...

This is brilliant, Lucy! Thank you for the thorough preview--can't wait to see the show on Thursday.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Me neither! See you there