Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Paul Laffoley: 21st Century Visionary Trickster

Avant-garde painter Paul Laffoley passed away on November 16th at the age of 75.  He was without a doubt one of the most unique, engaging, innovative individuals I’ve ever met.  Back in 2004, I described the artist and his work as follows:  “An architect by trade, Laffoley has spent almost every moment of his waking life creating mind-blowing paintings that meld both the Dionysian (the purely emotional) with the Apollonian (the purely rational), thus managing to capture the anarchic spirit of a Jackson Pollock within the grid-like confines of an architectural blueprint—a blueprint conceived in the mind of a mad genius obsessed with building only the impossible.  Such ‘impossible’ projects included a fully functional time machine called the ‘Geochronmechane,’ an interactive painting called the ‘Thanaton’ that helps the viewer project his etheric body into the astral realms, a single family farm designed to resemble the ten Sephiroth and twenty-two paths of the Kabbalah (complete with trees growing upside down beneath the ground in order to replicate the dark side of the Tree of Life), an immense spherical house composed of genetically-engineered vegetation, and a Christian fundamentalist theme park built in the shape of the Star of David.”  If you haven’t yet experienced the overwhelming metaphysical impact of Laffoley’s work, I highly suggest preordering The Essential Paul Laffoley, due to be published in April of 2016 by the University of Chicago Press.

I had the privilege of interviewing Laffoley in-depth over the course of two weekends back in February of 2004.  I watched him create his brilliant H.P. Lovecraft-inspired painting “Pickman’s Mephitic Models” while firing esoteric questions at him in his temporary studio at Cal State Fullerton.  This interview, entitled “Satan, God, H.P.  Lovecraft and Other Mephitic Models:  An Interview with Paul Laffoley,” was published twice, first by Paranoia in the winter of 2004 and then reprinted by a French magazine entitled Particules in the fall of 2009.  The unexpurgated version of the interview will be included in my forthcoming book, Imaginauts:  Exploring the Outer Reaches of the Mind.  Here’s a brief excerpt from that encounter:

RG:   The painting you’re working on now is about Lovecraft?

PL:    It's called "Pickman's Mephitic Models,” based on the story
         [“Pickman’s Model”].  Certain things about it many people don't realize.  [Richard Upton] Pickman was a real painter who lived between 1888 and 1926.  Now, there's a question mark [gesturing toward the writing in the margins of the painting], because Lovecraft claims that he turned into a ghoul.  God knows how old he is now.

RG:   Well, we know he reappears in [Lovecraft’s novella] The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath as a ghoul.  So, let me get this straight, you’re saying Pickman really lived in Boston?

PL:   Yeah.  That's what I'm saying.  In other words, the reason why I found out about that is that I went to Brown University.  I belong to the Lovecraft Society, which meets at the University.  They do things like follow in Lovecraft's footsteps, just like he followed in Edgar Allan Poe's footsteps.  I mean the actual footfalls, you know, like they’re going out looking for Sasquatch, this kind of stuff.  I mean, these are really dedicated people when it comes to Lovecraft.  But in the top floor of the John Hay Library, you have all of Lovecraft's archives.  And messing around in there, I noticed, I said, what are these paintings?  And the librarian told me, “Well, those are Pickman’s paintings.”  I said, “I thought this was like something he made up, like The Necronomicon, that kind of stuff.”  And he said no, that the guy actually existed.  He was a mediocre painter, living in Boston at that time, painting for the Boston Art Club, and places like that.  We’re not talking avant-garde galleries here.  But at a certain point, Pickman got this studio in the north end of Boston, which at that time was the first area where people lived when they first came to Boston.  And the reason they did that, they were defending their position, and in order to really defend it, by 1700 they had dug underground tunnels all through that area so people could go up in a house and then not be seen by the enemy attacking them.  

RG:   I remember that from the story.

PL:   The tunnels were used first in the Revolutionary War.  The next time they were used is during the time of moving slaves from the south on big ships, and when they would land they'd instantly go down into those tunnels, until the slave ships that were trying to catch them, coming up from Chesapeake Bay or West Virginia, got tired and went away.  And Lovecraft’s story is about Thurber, the narrator, going down into these tunnels with Eliot.  Thurber starts hearing rustlings and stuff down there.  He's looking at these God-awful paintings, very realistic renderings of demons, as they’re going deeper and deeper into the inner sanctum.  And then suddenly Eliot disappears and Thurber grabs something that he thinks is a background shot of a photograph.  When he gets home he realizes that this was actually the demon that Pickman had taken a snapshot of, and that he was using it to help him paint the thing from real life.  And so I've always wanted to do a painting on this […].

Now, the thing is, once I discover that these paintings are actually in the John Hay Library, I ask them, "Can I come back and take pictures of them?"  The guy says, "Absolutely not.  This is like a museum.  The only thing you can do is, you or a sketch artist can sketch these things; otherwise it’d be like going into a museum and borrowing stuff.  You can't do that.  The things would be ruined, taking them out of the case and all that kind of stuff.”  So I said okay.  I got a friend of mine and said, "Let's go down and do some visualization of that stuff.  That's how I got the things that’re there [referring to a series of four sketches hanging on the wall of his upstairs studio].  Arnie Clapman—that’s my friend’s name—he decided to do the first sketch.  So I’d say stuff like, "No, no, that's wrong, look at this here."  So we were working these things out together to get a pretty good rendition of what they actually look like.  There's quite a number of paintings that Pickman did.  So I picked basically the four juiciest ones.  They're not really the way they’re described in the story, because Lovecraft’s talking about something that almost sounded like Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, you know, the dogs playing poker and this kind of stuff.  In other words, that isn't what Pickman was all about.  He was depicting the suffering of Satan, you see, through these demons….

[End of excerpt]

When Paul Laffoley first told me about discovering Pickman’s original paintings in the John Hay Library, my reaction was a skeptical one.  After all, every Lovecraft fan knows that Pickman was a fictional character.  I figured Laffoley was pulling my leg in an Andy Kaufman kind of way.  Nonetheless, he seemed rather insistent about it, and kept up the tale over the course of an entire week… which seemed like a long way to go to pull a stranger’s leg.   

Later, after Paul returned to Boston, I heard from Joan d’Arc (the editor of Paranoia, who knew Laffoley very well and visited his studio often) that he mentioned to her casually one afternoon, “That Robert was a nice guy but, I dunno, he seemed to think I was lying about those Pickman paintings.” 

This intrigued me.  If he was making up the story, why be upset about me not believing him—particularly when he didn’t even know I would ever hear his comment?  I realized I was being like some of my more “rational” acquaintances who don’t believe my stories about the crazy things that happen to me in an average day despite the fact that such stories are, in fact, 100% true.   

I then endeavored to follow through on the tale.  I called the John Hay Library in Providence and asked to speak to the curator.  After some frustrating days of playing phone tag, I finally got a hold of the man.  He sounded like an older, distinguished gentleman with a British accent, exactly what you would expect a “curator” to sound like—like the guy who first uncovers The Mummy in those old Universal Monster pictures.   

So I say to the guy, “Listen, I just have a quick question.  Do you have any paintings in the Lovecraft archive?” 

“Of course.” 

“You do?” 


“Wait a minute, you shittin’ me?  Listen, I recently did an interview with Paul Laffoley.   He’s this painter from Boston, maybe you’ve heard of him?  Anyway, he recently completed a painting based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  It’s called ‘Pickman’s Mephitic Models.’  It’s based on this Lovecraft story ‘Pickman’s Model,’ which is about a painter named Richard Upton Pickman who’s involved in painting these ghouls in Boston ‘n weird crap like that, y’know?  Know what I mean?”

“Yes, indeed, yes.” 

“Y’see… Laffoley claims he based his painting on paintings he actually saw in your archives.” 

“Oh, of course, we do have the Pickman paintings.” 

“C’mon… get outta here!  Really?”

“Well, perhaps I should be clear before we proceed.  It’s not exactly a painting.  It’s a sketch of Pickman’s painting.” 


“Excuse me?” 

“This sketch!  It’s by Richard Upton Pickman?” 

“No, no.  It’s by Lovecraft.  It’s his interpretation of what Pickman’s painting might have looked like.” 

“Yes, well… okay, I knew that’s what you meant… uh, are there any other paintings or sketches in the archive?” 

“Indeed!  We have some interpretations of Pickman’s paintings by the writer Robert Bloch.” 

“Let me take a few steps back.  See, Laffoley’s claim was that Lovecraft based the Pickman painting on a real painter who actually lived and worked in Boston.   He said that these paintings, the ones by the real Pickman, were stored in the archive and that he had seen them.  Is that in any way possible?”

“Well… there were many painters named Pickman living in the Boston area at that time.” 

“But have you ever heard that Lovecraft based the Pickman character on one of them?” 

“No, no.  But then again Lovecraft was always basing his characters and settings on those he encountered in his daily life.” 

“So you have no knowledge of any paintings stored in the archive there in the library that could be, say, mistaken for a painting painted by a real man named Richard Upton Pickman who might have lived in Boston in the 1920s or the ‘30s?” 


“Okay.  Well… that’s it then.  I don’t have any more questions.  Thank you very much for your time.” 

“No problem at all, sir, no problem at all.”

Laffoley, as you can see, was the 21st century physical manifestation of the Trickster archetype in human form… but he was far more than just that.  The word “visionary” gets bandied about a lot these days in relation to anyone who can produce a random squiggle on a blank canvas, but Laffoley—as one can readily tell with only a cursory glance at his finest work—was a man for whom the word “visionary” was by no means an exaggeration.  Look at such paintings as “Alchemy:  The Telenomic Process of the Universe,” “Dimensionality:  The Manifestation of Fate,” “Thanaton III,” or “Pickman’s Mephitic Models.”  He was a crazy shaman whose brain seemed to be perpetually on fire, a true creative genius in an age sorely lacking in unfettered minds.

You will be missed, Mr. Laffoley, you will be missed...  but the numerous incendiary mysteries you left behind on canvas will forever remain to confound and overwhelm our pitifully mundane senses.  Rest In Peace.

(Oh, as a bonus, here’s my final analysis of Laffoley’s Pickman yarn:  Ultimately, I concluded that somebody in a position of power at Brown University caught wind of my interest in Richard Upton Pickman’s work and stole Pickman’s paintings before I could get through to the curator.  How these blackguards managed to wipe the memory of the paintings from the old curator’s mind is a detail I haven’t quite pinned down yet.  But let’s face it, those curators are real pushovers and easily intimidated.  If you can’t run away from Boris Karloff dressed up in 500 pounds of monster make-up, you’re just not that clever to begin with.  That’s my story—and perhaps Laffoley’s too—and I’m sticking to it.)

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