Aesop’s fable, The Frogs Who Desired a King, is a parable of discontent. A community of frogs plead with Zeus to send them a leader. First, he throws down a piece of wood that floats in the water. Frustrated by its passivity, the frogs request another leader. Zeus, annoyed with their dissatisfaction, sends a hydra that eats them all. Better a Stick than a Snake (above) is artist Andrew Catanese‘s depiction of this particular fable. “I recently started rereading Aesop’s fables with an eye out for some that would resonate with current events and politics,” he tells Creators. This is typical of Catanese’s creative process and style, both heavily steeped in mythological and biblical narratives, aimed at revealing precise truths both about himself and humanity.
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A Southern atheist, he defines the label as, “a constant questioning, even of my own beliefs.” His inquisitive nature is evident in his wealth of influences. He finds stylistic roots in Gothic art and is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, East Asian scroll paintings, and miniature paintings of ancient and modern Persia. In contemporary art, he draws from artists as varied as Edward Gorey, Yun-Fei Ji, Nicole Eisenman, and Contemporary Australian Aboriginal painters. Literature even plays a role, with subjects in his paintings suggestive of Flannery O’Connor’s “morally compromised men of God.” Catanese’s insatiable quest for knowledge is nothing if not impressive, and it is revealed in the intricacy of his paintings.
Born in Tuscon, AZ and raised in Richmond, VA, Catanese has long felt removed from Southern culture. “Being queer, born a Yankee, and secular in my beliefs meant that I was often at odds with most of my peers,” he says. “I recall feeling the need to conceal my interests as young as seven years old. Fortunately for me, I had the privilege of hiding behind my whiteness and masculinity, but I was hiding nonetheless.” Hiding and outsider status are recurring themes in his work. Forests in his paintings symbolize both the forests of the South, a place he describes as verdant and lush with foliage, and also places to hide or mask oneself. His hybrid creatures, inspired by Bosch and Greek mythology, can be interpreted as wearing masks and according to Catanese, “hiding their true selves.”
Considering his claim to atheism, it is interesting that much of Catanese’s art depicts biblical narratives. He explored religion in his youth, attending Protestant services and poring over religious texts, obsessed with the myriad narratives and interpretations. “Eventually, I decided I was an atheist,” he explains. “Although, atheist was primarily just a useful label. It made more sense to me than agnostic; I don’t think god(s) are unknowable, but I wasn’t satisfied with the religious institutions I could choose from either.” His definition of atheism defies that of contemporary atheism, where one adopts—oftentimes without question—the singular creed that “there is no God.” Rather, Catanese embraces the historical atheist endeavor of ancient philosophers, such as Socrates: to continuously doubt and question the prescribed beliefs.
His decision to utilize biblical narratives, then, is not to provoke or juxtapose against his atheism, but is simply one element in the larger story that defines him as an artist. “Whether taken at face value or not, religious narratives are often rich in their intricate examinations of morality, which is something to be appreciated with or without god,” Catanese says of his choice to include them. “The black and white morality in biblical narratives, fables, and mythology has always fascinated me. That combined with a dissatisfaction of the answers provided in those writings leads to my paintings.”
To learn more about Andrew Catanese and his work, click here.