Far inland, near the banks of the Ohio River, swam whales upon whales last summer. Portly and lithe, monumental and mist-shrouded, ominous and gentle, anthropomorphized and ecologized, they floated and dove through two Cincinnati art galleries. From April 22 to August 14, 2016, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, showcased the drawings of Robert Del Tredici and Matt Kish in “Chasing the Whale and Other Endless Pursuits,” co-curated by CAC Curator Steven Matijcio and Northern Kentucky Regents Professor of English Robert K. Wallace. A few streets over, from April 23 to June 11, the Marta Hewett Gallery in the Pendleton Arts Center ran “Adrift in the Wonder World: Women Make Meaning of Moby-Dick,” the first-ever exhibition of Moby-Dick art created entirely by women, co-curated by Marta Hewett and Wallace. A good deal of the credit for conceptualizing both shows goes to Wallace, a leading authority on Melville and the visual arts and author of Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (1992), Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick (2001), and Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century (2013). Wallace was instrumental in uniting Del Tredici and Kish for the CAC show, and the Marta Hewett Gallery exhibition included work by several former students who had taken his innovative “Melville and the Arts” course, which he describes in an essay for Robert C. Evans’s recent edited volume on Moby-Dick (reviewed in Leviathan 17.3).

Together these two exhibitions may constitute the most abundant and stylistically diverse visual response to Melville’s novel to appear outside the Elizabeth Schultz Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The CAC displayed more than 250 distinctive artworks by Kish and Del Tredici, and the Marta Hewett Gallery featured a dozen Moby-Dick-inspired pieces by nine artists working in a variety of media, from ceramic to fabric to video. If the collective visual extravaganza bore witness to many familiar themes—Ahab’s anger, Ishmael’s spiritual quest, the violence of whaling, and the mystery of the ocean—it also demonstrated that the esteemed tradition of Moby-Dick art-making is thriving and evolving into the twenty-first century, as new artists bring their distinctive sensibilities and lines of sight to Melville’s endlessly generative story.

The Del Tredici-Kish show at the Contemporary Arts Center brought together two of the best-known Moby-Dick artists working today, both [End Page 122] illustrators with a debt to cartooning. Del Tredici, the elder by a few decades, has exhibited his drawings and photographs internationally and taught art and film in Montreal for several decades. Much of his photography has focused on documenting the nuclear industrial complex; see The People of Three Mile Island (1980) and At Work in the Fields of the Bomb (1987). In the stories of the men who created the bomb, he has found eerie parallels with Moby-Dick, most evident at the CAC in the series “Nuclear Moby-Dick Photos,” a relabeling of his photographs of nuclear bomb factories and the men behind them with Moby-Dick-inspired titles. This unusual pairing comes into focus when one learns that he first read Moby-Dick in that fabled land of free spirits and political protest, Berkeley in the 1960s, when he was in his early twenties. Having just left seminary and abandoned a long-held sense of priestly vocation, he began a graduate program in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and, while working as a teaching assistant, read and taught Moby-Dick for the first time. In Ishmael he discovered a kindred soul, an irreverent and expansive spiritual quester who defied the beliefs and practices of conventional Christianity: a seeker, not a finder yet. Now, like an old salt who has circumnavigated the globe more times than he can tell, he has journeyed with the crew of the Pequod for half a century.

Sensitivity to questions of meaning defines Del Tredici’s illustrations of the novel. Upon entering the CAC gallery, one saw first “Berkeley Moby-Dick Prints,” two dozen of Del Tredici’s earliest pen-and-ink illustrations of the novel, selected from the more than eighty Moby-Dick drawings created in the mid-1960s and published, in part, as Floodgates of the Wonderworld (2001). These fluid, gestural drawings give form to Ishmael’s protean consciousness, including many of his most striking religious and philosophical musings. Fitting as an entrée to the exhibition as a whole, the series began with Cracked about the Head, a pen and ink portrait of Melville on azure paper, congruent in its outlines with the 1885 cabinet card photograph by Rockwood. Near Melville’s closed lips hangs the line, in meticulous, curiously serifed printing, “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” The sentiment captures aspects of Ishmael’s personality that have long appealed to Del Tredici: spiritual generosity and keen awareness of human fallibility, or “the ancient wisdom that we are irrevocably damaged,” as Del Tredici writes in his Postscript to Floodgates. Juxtaposed with Melville’s portrait, the selected text evokes Melville’s own vulnerability and mental instability, reinforced by the brow line slicing across his forehead, an embellishment to the original picture. Here is Melville as off-kilter genius, a “crack’d archangel,” as he called Sir Thomas Browne. [End Page 123]

But Melville the author soon gives way to Ishmael the protagonist, mouthpiece for Moby-Dick’s religious and philosophical concerns. The second drawing of the Berkeley series called viewers to follow Melville’s story through Ishmael’s eyes. The would-be whaler heads up a city street with “endless processions of the whale” dancing above, his back to the viewer, an invitation to identify and participate. Many of the other pictures in the series illuminated Ishmael’s more lyrical, sea-inspired existential observations: for example, in Wild Watery, “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.” If the Berkeley series had another dominant motif, it was the whale itself: processing above Ishmael, black and monolithic in Great Whale, white and voluptuous in Whiteness of the Whale, an eruption of flukes in Celebrate a Tail, and as four progressively stylized and sinuous drawings in Immortal Species, a seeming nod to the distorted, fabulous beasts— those “curious imaginary portraits” of the whale—that Melville describes in Chapter 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.” Set at the gallery entrance, the Berkeley series established Moby-Dick as Ishmael’s story, a mosaic of musings in which a whale hunt catalyzes a spiritual pilgrimage.

A rival introduction to the novel covered an adjacent wall: Matt Kish’s story-driven, action-infused “Moby-Dick in Pictures.” A librarian and self-taught artist living in Dayton, Ohio, Kish first caught the attention of Moby-Dick readers in the course of carrying out his self-announced project of illustrating Moby-Dick with one drawing per page per day, using the Signet Classics edition. It was a grueling schedule, especially given that Kish turned to his task each evening after an eight-hour workday and a ninety-minute commute. He posted his illustrations to his blog between August 2009 and January 2011, and an enthusiastic reception from fellow lovers of Moby-Dick propelled into print the complete set of 552 illustrations as Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (2013). The Cincinnati show offered a remnant of the original art of this compilation, with only 22 of the original illustrations on display, most having been given away or sold. From Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale (45) to the final imagined fight for the lifebuoy coffin (504), the pictures that survived to tell the tale were fair representatives of the project as a whole. The drawings were a visual feast in mixed media—pen, marker, acrylic paint, spray paint, crayon, collage, colored pencil, ballpoint pen, and charcoal—all on canvases of found paper, much of it informational materials printed with diagrams, schematics, and instructions for obsolete technologies. Kish’s visual style bespeaks the influence of pop art and comic books: bright colors, bold and blocky images, strong horizon and perspective lines, giant eyes, monstrous whales, abundant iron weaponry, and everywhere gushing, staining, showering blood. [End Page 124]

Quick to perceive a horror, Kish illustrates Moby-Dick so as to force viewers to consider the rapacity of nineteenth-century whaling, a useful counterpoint to Del Tredici’s more meditative interpretation. In 225, for example, a gigantic, toothed, black bird caws, “There she blows,” in blood-red letters bellowed from a vagina dentata maw: the exultant, legendary whaling cry as murderous screech (see the image right of center in Fig. 1). At times, though, the gore can seem gratuitous, as in 291, which takes its text from Ishmael’s remark in Chapter 65, “The Whale as a Dish”: “But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer.” This obscure remark—yes, even for a seasoned reader of Moby-Dick, some lines will remain obscure—seems chosen mainly to license breaking out the red paint, though the pagination of the Signet edition may also have been a factor since the line appears as the last complete clause on the page, giving it an outsize significance. In any case, given Kish’s fascination with the book’s adrenaline-fueled butchery and the perils of the sea, bordering on the macabre, he seems to have exercised restraint in not illustrating a line on the next page: “Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”

Fig. 1. Matt Kish with drawings from his mixed media “The Crew of the Pequod” series (left) and “Moby-Dick in Pictures” series (right) at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, April 23, 2016. Image courtesy of Robert Del Tredici.
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Fig. 1.

Matt Kish with drawings from his mixed media “The Crew of the Pequod” series (left) and “Moby-Dick in Pictures” series (right) at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, April 23, 2016. Image courtesy of Robert Del Tredici.

Not wholly sanguineous, the “Moby-Dick in Pictures” drawings on display also offered intuitions of some things heavenly, suggesting that Kish and Del Tredici may have been reading the same novel after all. For Kish the whale’s [End Page 125] terrible grandeur prompts an etherealizing turn. In 45, “Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly,” the Tetragrammaton floats in a mammoth speech bubble above the whale’s gaping, zipper-like jaw. Is this word a prayer from Jonah or from the whale, or is “Yahweh,” in letters tall as the ships on the found paper, the whale’s self-annunciation? Is the white whale agent, or is he principal? Two other drawings nodded to the interpenetration of natural and supernatural realities by merging whales and angels: a whale skeleton in winged glory in 441 (“By far the most wonderful of cetacean relics”) and the spout as an exuberant, all-encompassing feathering of the whale in 361 (“And as for this whale spout”).

One of the most entrancing elements of Kish’s work is his use of found paper, which introduces a level of intertextual play well-suited to allusive, text-acquisitive Melville. Whereas the “Moby-Dick in Pictures” drawings seldom incorporate quotations from the novel, the words and images on the found paper that peek through the drawings form palimpsests intimating conceptual echoes across time. Like Joseph Cornell’s Dickinson-themed shadow boxes, Kish’s “Moby-Dick in Pictures” asks viewers to create meaning by shuttling between forward-reaching nineteenth-century literature and twentieth-century ephemera. In 272, “The least tangle or kink in the coiling,” for instance, a whale line spirals atop cartoonish flukes and waves, and a red paint splatter down the middle dramatizes the line’s ability to “take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off.” The found-paper canvas is an electrical repair chart, with inductor pictograms mirrored in Kish’s uncoiling rope. Meanings redound: the paper’s half-obscured schematics electrify the whale line, intensifying its danger, while the bloody whale line makes the looping electrical symbols seem ominous, a whisper of half-perceived modern perils. Similarly, in 295, “The blubber envelops the whale precisely as the rind does an orange,” a printed diagram of interlocked pulleys floats in the air above the waves, a reminder that nineteenth-century American whaling was a form of mechanized, industrial capitalism. Other found papers offer narrative intertexts: in 504, the concluding “Moby-Dick in Pictures” drawing on display, the red, green, orange, and brown hands reaching for the coffin overlay a passage from an abridged Bible describing Jesus’s infancy, in which the Wise Men visit Bethlehem and Joseph and Mary flee from Herod into Egypt. The visible subtitle “The Escape” indicates this latter episode while also glossing Queequeg’s coffin, Ishmael’s reprieve from death. In these layered texts, Ahab emerges as a new Herod, a lethal tyrant who defies God’s will, and Queequeg’s salvific coffin as an ironic substitute for the promise of salvation through the Christ child.

Advancing into the gallery, one felt the exhibition’s truest pay-off: walls resplendent with new, not-yet-published Moby-Dick art. In “Moby-Dick Prints [End Page 126] on ‘Metallic’ Paper” (2013–16), Del Tredici presented 45 new prints stylistically akin to those of Floodgates, with resonant quotations elegantly integrated with his intricate pen and ink drawings. The metallic paper, new in this series, gives each drawing a sheen that hints at the novel’s spiritual preoccupations, an effect like that of his radiant Moby-Dick silkscreen prints (1999–2001), six of which were also on display and several of which were reprinted in Flood-gates. For this new series, Del Tredici shifted his focus from Ishmael, student of the world, to Ahab, man of obsessions, producing a magnificent collection that may be the most thorough visual rumination on the Pequod’s captain to date. Del Tredici’s Ahab is less terrifying than poignant. Sunwards, for instance, illustrates the haunting line, “For that strange spectacle observable in all sperm whales dying—the turning sunwards of the head, and so expiring—that strange spectacle, beheld of such a placid evening, somehow to Ahab conveyed a wondrousness unknown before.” Here, on goldenrod paper with a numinous aura, a small, childlike Ahab watches a breaching, sunward-pointing whale expire. Ahab Malady illustrates the captain’s wistful comment, “There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing for my malady.” The captain’s woeful, mask-like face fills the page; his arms clutch a Pip-shaped shadow. One of the series’ most arresting drawings, Prometheus, takes as its text, “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (Fig. 2). Del Tredici illustrates this remarkable line not, as Kish might have, with a bloody-mouthed bird, but with a pietà: a vulture, head feathers in a spiked halo, who holds Ahab’s emaciated body on its lap. Blasted if he be, Ahab has his humanities—and his divinity, too.

Kish had four new Moby-Dick-related series on display at the CAC. “The Crew of the Pequod” (2014) was commissioned by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and consisted of twelve whimsical portraits in some combination of ink, acrylic paint, or marker on white watercolor paper (several of the portraits can be seen at the left of Fig. 1). Most visually commanding were the three harpooners crouched in profile on the top row of the series’ four by three grid: blue Queequeg covered in tattoo-ish line work, imposing black Daggoo sporting a giant gold hoop earring, and orange Tashtego with harpoon poised. One row down were the mates, with green Stubb as the highlight; his pipe, pug nose, and arched eyebrows paid homage to Popeye and the art of cartooning. The next row featured black Pip, yellow tambourine in hand; a seraphic Fedallah, winged and turbaned, grasping upward and downward pointing harpoons, suggesting his Zoroastrianism; and Fleece, holding a roast-sized whale on a platter. Read top to bottom, the series culminated in two drawings of Ahab [End Page 127]

Fig. 2. Robert Del Tredici, Prometheus, ink on metallic paper, from “Moby-Dick Prints on ‘Metallic’ Paper,” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Robert Del Tredici.
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Fig. 2.

Robert Del Tredici, Prometheus, ink on metallic paper, from “Moby-Dick Prints on ‘Metallic’ Paper,” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Robert Del Tredici.

flanking Ishmael. In Ahab, a blue gash bisects the orange captain, while an evocative white tail floats next to his head. In Ahab Maddened, the blue gash is a shade darker, and Ahab is a jagged, flaming red. The diptych recalls Gilbert Wilson’s Insanity Series (1950), six large gouache and pencil pictures showing [End Page 128] the dissolution of Ahab in styles that shift from realism to cubism to abstract expressionism. Set between these two Ahabs is an Ishmael bearing scant resemblance to the narrator of Moby-Dick: an eyeless gaping Muppet, Kermit-green and fat-fingered, body erased by a giant triangle of a coat (see image at the bottom left of Fig. 1). Perhaps this caricature is a knowing wink, a symbol of how absurd it would be to regard Ishmael, who often narrates what he cannot see and who shares Melville’s encyclopedic knowledge, as a character akin to the other sailors.

Similarly unsettling were Kish’s “Cetology Whales,” fourteen black ink drawings on watercolor paper representing the whales of Chapter 32, “Cetology,” and arranged by folio, octavo, and duodecimo. These whales invoke an aesthetic of the grotesque, with huge noses, incisor-filled jaws, and hair, or so the line work suggests. The fantastical blending of the human and non-human would seem, in theory, to convey Ishmael’s anthropomorphizing of cetaceans, yet these whales do not invite identification or even sympathy. The whales of Chapter 32, “Cetology,” are majestic, heavy-laden, gamesome, retiring, mysterious, ferocious, and vivacious. Ishmael respects their quirks and revels in their idiosyncrasies. Kish’s whales are comic-book villains, hirsute mobsters with bad teeth and five-o’clock shadows (Fig. 3).

More satisfying were Kish’s “Broadsides” (2015–16), a collection of ten fictive propagandistic recruiting posters for the whaling industry, in acrylic paint and collage on found paper. The series foregrounds the rhetoric of heroism and conquest that Kish imagines lured men to risk their lives on whaling ships. The posters dramatize how self-interested institutions circulate deceptive messages enticing young people to pursue dangerous and questionable causes. For example, in WORLDS UNKNOWN / Let Me PROVE I can Make YOU A NEW MAN!, a hulking white whale eyes a tiny boat of whalemen, and one of the minuscule, silhouetted figures says, in a collaged, comic-book speech bubble, “THEN STOP YOUR TREMBLING, MAN—AND HELP ME SEND IT BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.” A timeless story: a doughty band quails before a daunting foe while a charismatic leader exhorts them to action. But visual elements undercut the grandiose rhetoric, as in all of these broadsides. The whale dwarfs the boat, and its leering, diabolical red eye hints at the foolishness and futility of the murderous mission. The final panel of the series tells the naked truth. Beneath a death’s head and above a rising, head-stone-shaped whale, a collaged sentence declares an unheralded outcome for young men about to go a-whaling: “You Will All Die In Pain.”

The CAC gallery experience culminated in Kish’s stunning new series “Extracts,” constellated along two adjacent back walls. The series comprises eighty-one distinct drawings in acrylic paint on found paper: a title page, then [End Page 129] each of the sub-sub-librarian’s eighty prefatory quotations. Full of brightly colored swoops, zigs, and zags, this sprawling, prismatic series felt like a Frank Stella sculpture squared-off and flattened. More so than in Moby-Dick in Pictures, paint covers the found paper, creating a color-saturated panoply of images: Kish’s trademark toothy whales and bloody sprays and death’s heads and the omnipresent ocean in lapis lazuli, green, orange, black, and red. The varied topics of “Extracts” also give Kish’s Moby-Dick art new range, taking it beyond the fiery hunt to include fascination with the whale as a subject of legend and lore, history and traveler’s tales. Kish weaves together his quotations and images less skillfully than Del Tredici; his default handwriting is a monotonous all-caps style that works against ready comprehension. But the quotations as units of text are typically well placed in the visual composition, and the text of each extract is mercifully there, reminding viewers of lines they have most likely forgotten.

Fig. 3. Matt Kish, Book III. (Duodecimo), Chapter III. (Mealy-Mouthed Porpoise), ink on watercolor paper, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Matt Kish.
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Fig. 3.

Matt Kish, Book III. (Duodecimo), Chapter III. (Mealy-Mouthed Porpoise), ink on watercolor paper, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Matt Kish.

The series succeeds in no small part because of its originality: its effort to animate an oft-overlooked section of a book whose main storyline has been [End Page 130] relentlessly visualized for a century. In all our versions of Moby-Dick, who has illustrated the Extracts, this tediously impressive prolegomenon? The creative gap speaks to readerly habit. Who among us has not, on occasion, merely skimmed this section before jumping to the real beginning of Moby-Dick, which as everyone knows is not the commonplace book of cetacean quotations but the imperative “Call me Ishmael”? Kish’s “Extracts” invite contemplation of these resonant, often disregarded passages, windows onto the history of humanity’s engagement with whales and plumb lines into themes that recur in the novel proper.

“Extracts” provides viewers with two distinct experiences. From ten feet away, the series was dazzling and kaleidoscopic, bordering on the vertiginous: a marvelous if bewildering visual analogue to this section of the novel. Up close, individual drawings called for and repaid close attention. One standout renders “Whales in the sea God’s voice obey,” from the New England Primer (Fig. 4). A blocky, grim-mouthed God robed in gold and silver stained-glass rectangles dominates the top three-fifths of the page. This stark geometric aesthetic, Kish explained, takes its cue from the Brutalist architecture of a Catholic church his family attended in his youth. Across the bottom of the page swims a white whale in a turquoise sea, its length the span of God’s commanding, outstretched hands, its three eyes symbolizing a mystic connection to a triune God. The drawing overlays a radio-repair diagram, whose circuit maps suggest unseen powers of communication between heaven and earth. In another arresting drawing, for “The papers were brought in, and we saw in the Berlin Gazette that whales had been introduced on the stage there,” from Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, a white paper stick-puppet whale in four segments dances above rows of paper waves. The playful image suggests how Melville’s own White Whale—also an artifice of paper and ink—might serve as readers’ entertainment, whatever its weightier import. The “Extracts” series deserves to be published as a book, a companion piece to Moby-Dick in Pictures, to be perused and contemplated at leisure. For now, interested viewers will need to track down the pictures at their new home, the Newberry Library in Chicago, where they await incorporation into the 2019 celebration of the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth.

A two-artist show silently asks viewers to compare and contrast, to judge relative merit, even to pick a favorite. In an attempt to defuse this competitive energy—or perhaps to heighten it—CAC hosted a live collaborative drawing event on the evening of the show’s opening. At 9 p.m., Kish and Del Tredici stood at a table in the lobby, ready to rumble. With electronica pulsing and nearly 100 spectators craning to see their brushes at work or peering at the digital projection on a wall, the two artists painted four pictures [End Page 131]

Fig. 4. Matt Kish, Extract 33. Whales in the Sea God’s Voice Obey, mixed media, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Matt Kish.
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Fig. 4.

Matt Kish, Extract 33. Whales in the Sea God’s Voice Obey, mixed media, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Image courtesy of Matt Kish.

[End Page 132]

together. They switched places every eight minutes on the dot and, when re-stationed, added to—and sometimes painted over—each other’s work. The pace was stressful, the air tense. Though no pre-selected lines from Moby-Dick guided these co-created improvisations, whaling motifs inevitably materialized. In the most successful painting to emerge from this creative experiment, a colossal, haloed, Matisse-blue man holds a harpoon against a black, red-splattered background, and delicate, sinuous white flukes grace the left margin. Visible from the hip up, the blue figure suggests Ahab, a grand, ungodly, god-like man; the flukes at his back, his ever-elusive prey (see images online at https://mobydickincincinnatiin2016.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/kish-and-del-tredici-open-cac-show-with-live-drawing-duet/).

Like calm seas after a storm, the opening of “Adrift in the Wonder World” the next afternoon had an altogether different mood: serene, thoughtful, more attuned to the novel’s human complexity and ecological investments (see images online at http://www.martahewett.com/exhibits/exhibit-fancybox.php?cid=adrift16). Mounted under the show’s title, Claire Illouz’s splendid Dear Leviathan welcomed viewers to this alternate realm of reflection on Moby-Dick. Illouz is a French painter and engraver whose drawings often feature naturalistic motifs—brush, leaves, roots—with fine lines and meticulous precision on a large scale, several feet wide and tall. Dear Leviathan is a likewise grand, intricate depiction of the natural world. A five by nine triptych of indigo dye on silk depicts a massive, luminous torpedo-shaped white glow framed across the top and bottom with ever-deeper shades of indigo: the whale as a tranquil, spellbinding presence. Like the “ghost whale” in Illouz’s artist book The Whiteness (2008), this one resists definitive recognition. We see no head, eye, fin, or fluke, only a shining wraith in the deep. Yet the leviathan is “dear.” The title demands that we see it—and by extension, the fathomless oceans in which it swims and with which its form merges—with kind regard. The work’s resistance to formal closure, in its partial whale and three panels, reflects Illouz’s continuing interest in how Melville found a wellspring of creativity in epistemological uncertainty. Discussing her experience of creating The Whiteness (see Leviathan 15.3), she writes, “Moby-Dick is a book about doubt: Melville understood so well what we artists owe to doubt” (13). The Whiteness, like Ishmael in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” embodies the terror of this doubt. Dear Leviathan approaches it with tenderness, asking viewers to make peace with the unknown.

A similar interest in the mystery of the whale informed Aileen Callahan’s Split of the Plummeting Scales and In the Wake of the Skin, two charcoal drawings [End Page 133] suggestive of the whale’s skin. In “The Blanket,” Ishmael describes the markings found on blubber: “Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings.” These lines “but afford the ground for far other delineations,” cryptic figures resembling Egyptian or Indian hieroglyphics. An instructor of art and art history at Boston College, Callahan interprets Ishmael’s description liberally in these abstract expressionist drawings. Without conjuring intricate engraving or esoteric symbols, the arcing, naturalistic lines of her whale skin are hypnotic, their undecipherability a metonym for the animal’s impenetrable intelligence.

Julia Oldham’s video, Speak, Thou Vast and Venerable Head (posted on Vimeo), turned two chapters forward to “The Sphynx,” in which Ahab apostrophizes the detached head of a sperm whale. A video and animation artist living in Portland, Oregon, Oldham describes herself in her online bio as creating art that represents “the artist’s own impossible desires to understand the unknowable and communicate with animals,” a declaration that makes her interest in Moby-Dick self-evident. In Speak, Thou Vast and Venerable Head, she retells the end of “The Sphynx” from a feminine perspective in a seven-minute, primarily black-and-white animated video whose detailed line drawings suggest the aesthetic influence of scrimshaw and engraving. In the passage from which the video draws its title, Ahab commands the whale, “tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest.” He lists the injustices the whale has witnessed—drowned sailors, murdered mates, lightning-struck ships—and concludes, “O head! Thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!” The whale is addressed as a mute witness to an unjust universe who, if able to speak, might impart a soul-tranquilizing theodicy. The chapter ends without answers, Ahab declaring, “‘O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies.’” In Oldham’s video, Ahab is just as plaintive but less sympathetic. The video begins with the Pequod capturing and beheading a female whale soon after giving birth. When her head is hoisted aboard and Ahab commands it to tell him its secrets, it rebukes him, vomits, and tells him to go home to Nantucket. Oldham gives the whale her own fluty voice, heightening the brutality of whaling, in which nursing mothers were fair game. More unexpectedly, she also voices Ahab, implicitly claiming for women his existential angst. In the video’s climax, Ahab asks, with the yearning of “The Sphynx” but in phrases taken from Stubb and Ishmael, “Tell me the truth, is the world anchored anywhere? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Our souls are like orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them.” The dead whale takes this opening to bemoan her orphaned child, and, in response [End Page 134] to further questioning, to affirm that whales have souls and that souls pass from mother to child through the umbilical cord. If this mystical ecofeminist excursus threatens to wreck the video on the shoals of didacticism, the video’s closing sequence is ambiguous and perplexing enough to steer clear of that fate. An astonished Ahab watches a rope grow from his navel downward, past the ship, past a giant whale with intelligent eye, to an anchor just beneath the whale at the bottom of the sea. Finis. If the soul comes through the umbilical cord, does Ahab’s anchoring to the watery waste of the sea floor suggest his spiritual poverty, or does the anchor’s proximity to the whale imply the kindred greatness of Ahab’s soul? Or do we have here simply reassurance that the world is indeed anchored somewhere? Eerie music, punctuated with pinging radar, underscores the video’s open-endedness. The analogies between Nature and the soul of man are indeed beyond all utterance.

Caitlin Sparks and Kathleen Piercefield, two of Wallace’s former students, displayed pieces that were more overtly ecological. For Transparent Skin Knitted Together, Sparks, who now runs a new media company in Northern Kentucky, crocheted strands of plarn (plastic yarn made from shopping bags), found fabric, and yarn into a richly tapestried six-foot-long whale in varied shades of white. The “transparent skin” of the work’s title refers to the “infinitely thin, isinglass substance,” “the skin of the skin, so to speak,” that Ishmael describes in “The Blanket.” It also speaks to the whale’s vulnerability, since, as Sparks explained in her artist’s talk, the plarn symbolizes the millions of tons of plastic that now fill the oceans and endanger sea life. An ecological consciousness also suffuses printmaker and painter Kathleen Piercefield’s The Affidavit, a mixed-media collagraph of five sperm whales in shades of gold, tan, blue, and gray, each gorgeously mottled. Whereas Ishmael in “The Affidavit” relates tales of dangerous, ship-destroying whales, Pierce-field’s work omits the ships and devastation; her whales swim peacefully for their portraits. On one, the toothed lower jaw gapes—Ishmael notes that a sperm whale when attacked will sometimes hold his mouth open for several terrifying minutes—but the others are harmless enough. Contrast Kish, who illustrates the opening page of this chapter (196) with harpoons and dripping blood. Kish captures Ishmael’s effort to convey the sperm whale’s threat and the plausibility of the Pequod’s fate; Piercefield, the subtext of Ishmael’s appreciation for the natural world.

Several other artists in the “Adrift” show took inspiration from the relationships among members of the Pequod’s crew. Mary Belperio, a former student of Wallace, engaged with the ever-fascinating friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg in Snuggles Beneath the Counterpane, a two-foot wide, three-foot high fabric wall-hanging, in which Queequeg’s arm, tan leather inked with devilishly [End Page 135] tantalizing tattoos, is crooked around a multi-square fabric quilt. Figure merges into ground, as in “The Counterpane.” If “Snuggles” sounds slightly coy, Belperio exaggerates the wink by drawing Queequeg’s arm tattoo to resemble corset lacing, hinting at the scene’s eroticism. Ishmael and the Kokovokan also share an intimate moment in Queequeg and Ishmael, paired portraits in porcelain with black underglaze, by Monica Namyar, a local high school art teacher with a specialty in ceramics. Elaborate etching on the portraits’ backgrounds and on Queequeg evokes both tribal art and Western engraving, and Queequeg’s chest tattoos feature the Maori symbol for friendship. Untattooed Ishmael, a comparative blank slate, gazes yearningly at his companion; their eyes would lock if Queequeg would only glance his way. An even stronger attachment connects Ahab and Fedallah in Namyar’s stoneware and acrylic Janus bust Fedallah and Ahab: The Pledge. The captain and his evil angel stare outward in opposite directions from their shared head, joint possessors, it would seem, of a common mind.

Can a single artwork represent the entirety of Moby-Dick? Such was the goal of the most conceptually ambitious piece of either show, Ungraspable Phantom by Danielle Wallace, a former student of Wallace (no relation), now training horses in Alabama. This large, Turner-esque oil painting depicts a realistic whale ship cresting a blood-tinged wave in a roiling sea as it presses toward a swirling, nacreous glow that dominates the right half of the painting. The effect is compelling. As in reading Moby-Dick, we seek order and find instead a careful disorderliness. Like Ahab, we scan the sea for a whale and meet with frustrating obscurity. The storm-beset, sky-blent sea is, as in “Brit,” an “everlasting terra incognita” that bears the “full awfulness . . . which aboriginally belongs to it.” This sea both hides and emblematizes terrifying, inscrutable Moby Dick—and thus cosmic mysteries, divine malice, unconquerable nature, and certain death.

As one might expect and hope in an all-woman Moby-Dick show, several artists reflected on the relationship between Melville’s story and the lives of women. Oldham gave the slaughtered whale and Ahab her own voice. In Women of New Bedford: The Captains’ Wives (drypoint, monotype, and collagraph), Piercefield, working from a photograph found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, superimposed a drypoint of six bonneted nineteenth-century women, the captains’ wives of the title, on collagraph images of the sea and ships and shore-perched buildings of New Bedford (Fig. 5). If the buildings sitting atop the waves seem, as in Ishmael’s description, harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea, these women, pace Ishmael, do not bloom like red roses. One is careworn and lonely, her eyes directed to the far horizon; the others gaze outward with calm strength or meet our eyes with [End Page 136] curiosity. Their impassive faces insist that viewers recognize the unglamorous but essential role that women played in sustaining whaling communities.

Fig. 5. Kathleen Piercefield, Women of New Bedford: The Captain’s Wives, drypoint, monotype, and collagraph. Image courtesy of Marta Hewett Gallery.
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Fig. 5.

Kathleen Piercefield, Women of New Bedford: The Captain’s Wives, drypoint, monotype, and collagraph. Image courtesy of Marta Hewett Gallery.

The fabric hanging The Warrior staged a more dramatic, symbolic link between Moby-Dick and women. Wrought by Abby Langdon, a textile artist in Cincinnati who took Wallace’s Moby-Dick course twenty years ago, The Warrior uses photographic transfer and embroidery to depict a woman (based on a photograph of Langdon herself) decorated with Maori-inspired tattoos grasping a harpoon above her head (Fig. 6). Minute, exquisite stitches create the tattoos and add mesmerizing texture to the harpoon handle and the warrior’s flying, spiraling hair. The battle this warrior fights feels metaphorical rather than literal, as only the wood and rope of the harpoon are shown, not the iron, and the warrior’s aspect expresses determination without hostility. The warrior’s implicit identification with Queequeg suggests her confidence and skill: here is a woman always equal to herself. Floating near The Warrior in the gallery, though not positioned as prey, was Langdon’s other textile contribution to the show, The Whiteness, a nine-foot-long, space-defining white whale made from an upcycled tent embroidered with eyes, wrinkles, and scars. Like the whales of Dear Leviathan and Transparent Skin Knitted Together, this cetacean was [End Page 137] otherworldly yet familiar, a vulnerable fellow creature. Standing in the company of these three whales—alongside, too, Piercefield’s Affidavit whales—one felt an echo of the eternal mildness of joy of “The Grand Armada,” Melville’s fullest articulation of the whale’s likeness to humanity.

Fig. 6. Abby Langdon, The Warrior. Image courtesy of Marta Hewett Gallery.
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Fig. 6.

Abby Langdon, The Warrior. Image courtesy of Marta Hewett Gallery.

Nearly every exhibition of Moby-Dick art is a failure, if one takes the novel itself as an authority and agrees that the whale will remain “unpainted to the last.” Yet we should not put too much stock in this memorable dismissal of the visual arts. As with Ishmael’s snarky observation that the Spouter-Inn [End Page 138] painting is a “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” and his half-veiled contempt for the kitschy painting that hangs behind Father Mapple, Ishmael’s declaration directs us from the visual to the verbal, claiming for the latter—and for Moby-Dick itself—the greater power and accuracy of representation. A novel, Melville says, is worth a thousand pictures, or more. Fair enough, and yet for all the undeniable grandeur of Moby-Dick, the eleven artists featured in Cincinnati last April do far more than pay tribute to a titanic work of world literature. Rather, they confirm it as what John Bryant has called a “fluid text,” one whose meanings develop over time and across diverse media. Through passionate amplifications, arguments, riffs, and revaluations, these artists extend and revise a novel that is in one sense Melville’s yet, more importantly, ours. We are its readers and co-creators. Readers with the good fortune to see this art will return to the book reenergized, primed to reinterpret and relive familiar passages in the light of new visions. [End Page 139]

Dawn Coleman
University of Tennessee

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