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Satan Takes Over

Roger Manley

MYRTICE WEST’S REMARKABLE PAINTING Satan Takes Over is perhaps her most successful artwork to date, since it is one that satisfies intellectually as well as spiritually and aesthetically. Its structure—a huge, almost circular, semi-transparent face floating before a landscape bisected by a stone wall and surrounded by a balanced assortment of symbolic tableaux—is by several magnitudes her most graphically memorable composition. At the same time, its narrative content neatly sums up the key underlying messages of all her art with great economy of means.

Most of West’s other work utilizes a patchwork of perspectives, focal points, and seemingly random events, which she deploys only as if to cover as much informational territory as she can possibly cram in. In Painting #9, Song of Moses, for example, a single canvas includes views of Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, and the vineyards where the grapes of the land of Canaan (or of wrath) are being harvested and then also separately trampled. Beyond these, the animal symbols for the four Gospel saints mount steps leading up to the way of the cross, which is revealed as the radiant door of heaven. This, in turn, is surmounted by a rainbow and adjoins heaven itself, busy with swarms of harp-playing angels, Jesus on his throne, and symbols of the final judgment. And there’s more. Here and there she’s filled in the gaps with images of the sanctified church, shepherds guarding their flocks by night, both the seven-headed dragon and the beast of the sea from Revelation, along with their familiar, the whore of Babylon. If this weren’t already enough, right in the middle of it all is what looks like a reference to the popular gospel song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” apparently led by an African-American preacher. Any remaining bits of paintable surface are patterned with rays of light, swirling clouds, or bolts of lightning.

While it may be a fascinating work on its own terms, and certainly one that invites an exploratory sort of examination, it shares the same problem as many of West’s other paintings: filling up all that vacui leaves no room for real horror—or, for that matter, any other deep emotional response. None of them quite approaches the unified coherence she accomplishes in Satan Takes Over or resolves into any singular image as riveting as the cat-like eyes of that huge, terrifyingly immediate face.

The difference almost certainly has to do with how this particular painting came about, compared to most of the others she has completed. Before beginning her other works, West struggled to absorb passages of Scripture and laboriously translated them into discrete images, sentence by sentence. These she then seems to have simply arranged around the painting surfaces wherever they might fit, while following a few standard rules—such as keeping heaven toward the top, earth toward the bottom, and so forth—but all the while maintaining a basically flat field, lacking in extended visual depth. As a fundamentalist, she is bound and committed to a word-for-word understanding and retelling of the whole Scripture story. To edit—that is, to leave out any details or substitute her personal experiences for the standard accepted literal interpretations—would run counter to the basic tenets of her faith.

Although in hindsight West recognized certain relationships between what she rendered in Satan Takes Over and various phrases and images from the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Revelation, this painting does not directly repeat complete passages or images from that book, except as disconnected phrases glimpsed only here and there. At the time she painted it, West was deeply immersed in creating a whole series of works based on this book of the Bible (and indeed, painted on the reverse of this same work is one of her more typical Revelations pieces). It should be no surprise, then, that there might be some overlapping and mingling between the imagery constantly on her waking mind and that in the Satan image. But instead of with studying and reading, this painting began with another, much more personal source: a frighteningly vivid dream, and one not described by St. John, but all her own.

This picture came from a nightmare. One night I woke myself screaming, because I’d dreamed I was down by the creek (where I was baptized when I was fourteen) and I saw this huge face. I saw myself sitting down with my legs in the water while my daughter and someone I didn’t recognize were in the water beyond me. Then things changed and I recognized my daughter, and her own son and daughter, wading in the creek up closer. I started hollering at them, and then I saw the school children coming. And then in the face toward the back I saw some people from my church. I realized they could not hear me, and the water was full of snakes. I show how the water looked just before it started. I also saw some other groups in the vision but didn’t put them in. Some of them came into the water of life too. I saw the head, and knew it was the Antichrist and we couldn’t stop it, and nobody could hear me. Then in my vision I started running toward the man in blue. I’d say he was John. He climbed to the top, and I was with him. Then I woke up, and I drew this mostly at night.

This time West made no attempt to transcribe an extended narrative taken directly from the Bible. For once, she found herself free to pare down the imagery as much as she needed to (leaving out the “other groups” she saw, for instance) to better capture the acute feeling of the moment. It was a single, powerful, and above all personal experience, related with as much directness as she could muster. She wanted to communicate a startling encounter with her own sense of real evil, and in order to do so, she needed quite literally to face it head-on.

So I drew the home and family on the left side being taken away by some sex family but they were not people. They were snakes. Then there’s the Antichrist or Satan entering the school on the right. You can also see the snakes as the beast or the Antichrist getting into our government, and the flag and the stars falling. Through the falling off, our government becomes satanic and turns toward us as the old serpent, the devil, the great dragon and then the church goes wrong. It gets on the wrong side, and gives its service to the beast. Then God puts his hand on the time switch of the end time.

Encapsulated in this one image is her concern for “the decline of family values, the liberal ideas and practices allowed by the church, the banning of prayer in the schools, and the corrupt government that allows these tragedies to occur.”

Myrtice West with
Satan Takes Over, 1994.

Here her fascination with apocalyptic “end times” (one shared by most fellow believers, who hunt seriously through the meanings they feel sure are embedded in Revelation) is grounded in her own everyday world of family, community, and country. At the same time, she questions the ordinary, outward appearance of things by contrasting them against the ravenous but elusive face. Only she herself can see it and sense the danger it implies, but while under the spell of the dream, she is powerless to communicate her fears. Disturbingly, she sees not only those she loves but herself behaving complacently as well; rather than recoiling in horror, they each remain in dreamy ignorance as the snakes writhe through the waters toward them. Meanwhile, her “observing” consciousness, which is the same as ours (i.e., that of ourselves as viewers of the painting), is looking down upon the whole scene from some elevated height, seeing the face and eventually realizing all it signifies. No one can hear her warnings down below, not even herself, lolling by the river’s edge. Instead, all she can do is watch herself living (as symbolized by the lone leafy tree growing beside her) but as yet living without full awareness, except for awareness of the end.

Therefore listen: God’s hand is on the switch, and the clock has only fifteen minutes left. But study again: Only one tree by the water has leaves. I sat under it, with my feet in the water trying to give or hold onto life in that final fifteen minutes, facing the beast or Antichrist. The other trees behind the face are not clear because Satan mixes up things.

To Myrtice West’s way of thinking, the hand on the stopwatch (or “switch”) isn’t the really threatening or surprising element; God’s plan is only being played out according to his own time-honored rules, presumably as laid out in Revelation. All will come to an end, she believes, just as it was foretold it would from the very beginning. Instead, she shows that the true danger comes from letting Satan introduce confusion, so that one is prevented from seeing or reaching the truth. Seemingly almost intuitively, West utilizes a brilliant assortment of devices to convey her message about the dangers generated by lies and deceptions. The face, the clock, the leafless trees, the multi-colored snakes, together with the falling stars, form a visual shorthand for the threats of spiritual pollution, imminent destruction, and societal collapse. No element is superfluous.

Had she been content only to scatter these various symbols around as usual, they might easily have competed confusingly with each other and flattened their overall impact, the way they do in some of her other works. This time, however, though West clearly saw her situation outlined in an assortment of terrifying details, she succeeded in expressing not only the feeling, but also the bigger meanings she wanted to convey by arranging the components into a surprisingly taut composition that suggests both depth and movement. She presents a unified and nearly symmetrical formal structure, but one that refuses to come to a standstill. It is an ingenious achievement.

The scene (or, if one prefers, the “experience” of the dream) takes place on three overlapping layers or planes, through which one sees the whole image in depth. These can be understood dynamically either as receding, if one’s eye follows the figure of St. John (on the left, leaving the foreground to surmount the wall), or else as projecting, if one follows the flow of water from its origins in the distance and down its course back toward the lower foreground.

The background forms one of these planes, separated from the viewer and the foreground by the dividing wall. This distant plane is presented as an essentially symbolic place, containing as it does the church (symbolizing religion), the stopwatch (time), the Capitol building (government), the flag and falling stars (the nation), and the hand (of God). Taken together, these elements show that West intends the background to indicate the future, or, in other words, the realm of both possibility and eventual outcome.

The foreground is on another plane, which evokes the everyday world of ordinary interaction and (somewhat idealized) daily life. For West, it contains to some degree the past as well, since a few of the figures are intended to represent her daughter, who stands near the leafless trees. But for any viewer who has not previously heard or read an explanation of who the individual figures are, the foreground primarily indicates the present, or the realm of danger and choice.

The giant face is presented as existing on yet a third, far more mysterious plane all its own. The primary source of visual energy for the painting stems from the difficulty one has in placing or keeping this plane in any single static position. At times the face looms somewhere near middle-depth in the scheme, with its eyes seeming almost to rest atop the wall. But on second glance it appears to move forward into the half-foreground, with its mouth spanning the creek and the full width of the water passing between its lips. Then seen yet again, it moves still closer to the foreground, even to the very surface of the painting, staring back like the viewer’s own bloated and distorted reflection. Looking at the painting, one feels confronted and then, in fact, pursued. If the face alone weren’t frightening enough, emerging from behind it and penetrating it—and projecting still further forward from it toward us—are those deadly snakes.

It’s a masterful effect, but one that would risk pushing the image into the exaggerated humor of ordinary caricature, were it not for the way West uses water. The water functions to bind and unite all three of these planes and keep them in balance by forming, together with the wall, a foreshortened cross that extends back through the depth of the whole scene into the distance.

The water sustains the effect of the face and actually intensifies it, by continually drawing it back toward the realm of symbol, only to have it leap terrifyingly forward into the realm of actuality again and again.

The river is from the nightmare, and the waterfall is the water that Christ offered, blocked by the Antichrist, that old serpent.

Like Satan, the water of life also seems to emerge from the symbolic plane lying behind the wall, then to approach and become tangible—tangible enough in fact for one to wade in, or even be baptized in (remember that West described this as the very creek where she herself was baptized at age fourteen). But Satan blocks the view of its origin, and thus in effect claims it as his own. He seeks to trick the viewer with the illusion that it emanates from his own brow instead of from Christ—the real source, according to Christian belief, of everlasting life. Thus while Christ (as source) is actually the central theme of this work, for Satan’s trick to seem effective, Jesus must remain hidden and out of view.

In order to escape Satan’s life-threatening deception, West argues that one must follow the scriptural messages (manifest by the figure of John) through their mysteries and beyond the difficulties that keep one apart from understanding:

The wall represents problems. We climb to try to understand what causes these problems. The reason the head is so big is that when Satan is in charge, he covers up everything before the final war and the return of Christ. The earth is like God made it. We can see it, but we can’t see what Satan does through the people. We have to use our eyes, our noses, our mouths, and our ears that God gave us to try to reach the interpretation with our conscious brain too. Use them for God, or the serpent will change it all around.

Prolonged experience with the painting’s pulsating cycle of threat, followed and immediately countered by spiritual mastery, yields a strong, visually-experienced message. Ultimately, it speaks of enlightenment and understanding. Only by actively seeking truth, and by bravely attempting to see through the confusing and deceptive surfaces of things in the world, warns West, can one reach beyond the dreamy illusions of life and finally begin the redemptive process of fully waking up.

from Myrtice West’s Explanatory Letter

One Sunday I started toward my church where me and my daughter were both baptized, but somehow I wound up in a church twenty miles the other way—a Holiness Church, where I’d never been before. The Bible reading for that day was in Revelation. I apologized for intruding and sat down. Then a woman stood up and said, “You-all don’t know this woman, but I do. She is a Christian, and whatever she sees, she can paint.”

Roger Manley was born in San Antonio, Texas, and attended Davidson College in North Carolina as an undergraduate. Later, after spending two years in the Australian Outback living with a tribe of Aboriginals, he earned a graduate degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a photographer, folklorist, curator, and writer, with areas of interest ranging from outsider artists and tribal peoples to fairy tales and gardens. His books include Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina (1989), which presents the art of over 100 self-taught artists from North Carolina. He has also co-authored several other books, including Self-Made Worlds (1997), Tree of Life (1997), and The End is Near! (1998). Manley lives in Durham, North Carolina and currently works part-time as guest curator for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and full-time as curator of exhibitions at the Gallery of Art & Design, the art museum of North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Excerpted from Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West. Copyright © Mustang Publishing Company, Inc. Reproduced with permission.


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