"Serpentology Drawings," Apr. 20-May 19, 2001, at Jack Shainman, 513 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
"The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." With these words, Eve snitched on the snake. Ever since, this wiggly reptile has had a bad rep -- at least in the Judeo-Christian world. As the evil power responsible for the fall, in Western art serpents symbolize the devil. Saint Patrick got a day named after him for banishing the snakes from Ireland. My thesaurus gives "Satan" as a synonym for snake. Western psychologists believe human beings have an innate aversion to serpents.
Everywhere else, however, snakes are great. This is the Chinese year of the snake. There are Native American serpent mounds in Ohio, snakes drawn on the plateaus of Peru and the caves of France. The Mayans revered the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl; the Japanese have the eight-headed, eight-tailed, red-eyed Koshi. The Hopi, Huron, Shoshone and Sioux tribes venerated serpentine deities. In Australia and West Africa, they worshiped a rainbow serpent; in Arabia and Ethiopia, a winged one. Asps adorn the helmets in paintings and sculptures of Egyptian pharaohs. Some New Agers believe snakes are extraterrestrial colonizers.
But leave it to India to go hog wild for snakes. For a dose of this fervor, go see "Serpentology Drawings," the honey of an exhibition at Jack Shainman, in the utterly un-India-like Chelsea. There you will see more than 150 realistic, stylized, exquisitely colored, black-and-white, simple, silly or just plain insane drawings of snakes -- nearly all king cobras. Made in the province of Rajasthan during the late 19th century by students attempting to better understand the nature of tantric energy, these drawings were collected over 10 years and 20 visits to India by artist and gallery partner Claude Simard. Hindu cosmology -- which has oodles of noodly deities -- sees the snake as a supernatural spirit. In Tantrism, which is Sanskrit for "that which extends and spreads," snakes represent kundalini, the creative energy of the universe -- what scholar Philip Rawson calls "the cosmic river of time and reality." Within the human body, this energy dwells at the base of your spine. As Tantrism is a cult of ecstasy, it doesn't believe in an uphill struggle for enlightenment. Shunning asceticism, it seeks to transcend through pleasure, sex and vision. The "Serpentology Drawings," then, are psychocosmic mechanisms to assist in that transcendence.
Fortunately, Simard -- who's practically messianic about these things -- organized this exhibition not along academic lines, but whimsically, according to esthetic idiosyncrasies, stylistic similarities, compositional tics and quirks of coloring. There are no names for the 15 subjective groupings he's created, all involving snakes: coiled around weird egg-things, twisted around texts, drinking milk from a bowl, darting this way or that, intertwined with or fighting one another, sporting strange hairstyles, looking wistful, on plain or colored backgrounds, shaped like IUDs, turning into architectural motifs, drawn with finely sharpened pencils, covered in ravishing scales and beaked like birds.
Whether they're diagrams of consciousness or pictures of the metaphysical world, transformation is what these drawings are all about. Thus, as one snake drinks milk, its body turns white. As another serpent evolves to a higher stage of consciousness, it sprouts the fabulous mustache and stringy hair of a holy man. Some smile, others scowl. Many look like the cute wormy characters from the comic strip B.C. Sometimes an unevolved snake will strangle another who seeks enlightenment. Often, another snake comes to the rescue or protectively loops around the set-upon guru-snake. A number of serpents coil around "cosmic eggs," or symbols for universal energy. These eggs are nested, nurtured and carried. One serpent supports an egg on its back, another -- with 12 heads -- curls around a cluster of 14 cosmic eggs. Because of the mystical look, decorative beauty and abstractness of many of these drawings, artists like Francesco Clemente, Philip Taaffe and Brice Marden come to mind. Which isn't surprising. All have looked at tantric art, and the best description I can think of for Marden's meandering abstract paintings is snakes in a box.
But why snakes? They're outwardly androgynous yet brim with sexual suggestiveness, so that fits the program. They slough off their skin, so they're natural symbols of transformation. But couldn't geometric diagrams, trees, butterflies or fish do the trick? Possibly. Like all drawings, these are ways of getting at something else -- of letting the hand look for what the mind may already know. A language unto itself, drawing is a way of thinking and a way of seeing yourself think. It opens channels. Ideally, drawing creates what the artist Amy Meyers (who recently debuted her elegant cosmic diagrams at Mary Boone uptown) calls "a place of zero resistance," by which I think she means a place where you go deeper into yourself as the self is eclipsed. Like most artists, the anonymous students who made these joyous, playful, divine things started with a system, or a set of rules. Then, they went in search of that zero resistance. As with all artistic systems, the snakes were pretexts, peepholes and portals to something that was there all along.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.