“Mona Mohawk”

By Winston Smith

I found myself at a certain stage in my work (around 1979 or 1980) when I began to experiment with using copperplate engravings and trying to create compositions using that style of illustration. I used to go to an antiquarian book store where I’d collect old books and magazines in a little town just north of San Francisco. Since the essence of my montage compositions is the vast ephemera of the past (especially the brightly colored adverts of the Wartime era and the artificially “fabulous Fifties” that followed it), I have been constantly on the look-out for what others discard or leave behind, hoping I can breath new meaning into them for a new (if somewhat more grim) era. In the late ’70s I used to go into this one particular book shop  and yak with the owner, this retired guy who seemed to just be looking after the place more or less as a hobby. He’d usually let me have most of the old mags for 50¢ or a buck each.  Sometimes a whole grocery bag of stuff for 5 dollars.  What ever I could carry.

One time I walked in and all the shelves had been pulled down as if an earthquake had just struck. A huge mess of battered books lay in a pile on the floor. They were going to tear the old Victorian building down that very day and haul it all off for landfill. He didn’t seemed too riled about it so someone must have made him a pretty good offer just to get their hands on the land so they could build a parking lot or some yuppie condo. I was in shock. He told me I could just take anything I wanted as long as I did it right away. The bulldozers were on their way in a few minutes. I was heartbroken since I could only carry what I could hold in my arms, I had no rucksack or duffel bag with me. So he gave me an old wooden beer box and I began filling it with anything I could find that was from the 19th century that contained illustrations, mostly engravings  and traditional imagery.

Within a year or so I saw this awful event play out a few more times; libraries that had no more room for their oldest material, book shops that had no more room for what they used to stock, etc. They would just fill huge steel dumpsters with acres of old books and periodicals. Once I saw them doing this at Fort Mason (near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco), sending tons of books down a shoot right into a giant dumpster. The people dumping it all were surprised that anyone would want these dusty, old things so, again, I found myself struggling to carry away as many old volumes of children’s stories and ancient encyclopedias as I could carry wrapped-up in my old leather jacket. There was so much more there which I had to leave, 19th century world atlases, obsolete technical books, machinery manuals, you name it.

This is happening at ever-increasing rates even today as colleges and universities purge their shelves of old books once they’ve been scanned and listed—then the originals are just so much wood pulp and their value is only a fraction of what the real estate they’re cluttering up is worth. So:  Get rid of it all! Libraries all over the country are actually burning books. What a crime against humanity and against our shared cultural inheritance. Now we are putting all our eggs in one digital basket because some faceless bureaucrats have made a “cost-cutting” decision. The past is for sale.  Hurry, hurry! “While supplies last”.

A few years later I found myself living in a remote cabin up in the mountains miles from the nearest paved road, with no running water, no telephone and only kerosene lamps for illumination. Ultimately I came across these 100 year old books with their quaint illustrations and old-fashioned images and I decided to create a series of collages composed exclusively from these sources. (Later I saw some of the exact same pictures as “copyright-free” images sold in art stores and hobby shops as Dover Publications). So I’m not entirely certain where that particular reproduction of Leonardo’s portrait of La Gioconda came from.

Either way, it dawned on me that she could probably stand at least one more artistic alteration, as she has already suffered so many over the centuries—especially in the 20th century when mass image printing became possible and her visage was spread to the four corners of the earth. The lady’s name was Elisabetta Gherardini, the wife of a middle-class Florentine business man named Giacomo del Giacondo; hence the name Mona Lisa (meaning My Lady or as we would put it; M’Lady Lisa), an elegant, serene woman in the waning years of youth who’s deep eyes and subtle smile have enticed the world for generations. Leonardo kept the painting with him all his life. Who knows? Maybe he had a crush on her (or maybe her husband’s cheque bounced).

She is older than the stones among which she rests. Her smooth, plucked eyebrows, the peculiar fashion of the day, create a serene and penetrating gaze. Her timeless, subtitle smile beguiles us. Her calm grace, her inner light, her singularly unique charm entrap and disarm us.

Hers is the face that sunk a thousand ships. She is the quintessential marriage of classical beauty and devil-may-give-a-rat’s ass attitude. With the shock of hair, cut as the fearsome American tribal warriors wore it and a spiky neck collar ringing her throat, as well as a jagged, little safety pin piercing her soft flesh, Mona Mohawk’s delicate hands clutch a scratched and ancient 45 rpm—though it might as well be a snub-nose 45, for all her lethal intent.

In order to create my image of Mona Mohawk I first had to set about destroying Leonardo’s masterpiece. Fortunately all the copperplate engravings of the period from the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s were produced to establish a standard gradation so all illustrations of other illustrations for text books and art books or history books seemed to share the same palate. This meant that interchanging images using engravings as the “data base”, so to speak, allow for each picture that was “modified” to look as though it were born that way in its original form. This opened the door for all manner of artistic absurdities to be perpetrated upon them. Most people probably think I hold Art in very low regard but I actually have every respect for the works of the great Maestri of the past and hope they will indulge my inept re-renderings of their masterpieces, if only in the name of creativity, if nothing else.

I used a dull razor blade to scratch the ink off the page and then re-draw the outlines I wanted to appear. I also used a little bottle of that “white-out” paint, common in schools and offices back before computers became ubiquitous and typewriters were the highest tech equipment available short of a pencil sharpener. By and by, I was able to obliterate enough of the original image and replace it with my sarcastic commentary on what had by then (1983) become a fashion cliché, the punk prerequisite:  the Mohawk. All that was needed were a few additional accouterments such as the safety pin piecing the cheek and the spiky leather neck collar plus a few band pins (in this case my DK logo created years before for Dead Kennedys and the ever-present “four towels” as Biafra always referred to the Black Flag logo).

For the fPhoto: Nick Cernakinal “insult to injury” I placed a 45 rpm into Mona Mohawk’s delicate hands. People think I made this up but that was actually a real song by a real band: The band’s name was: The Geeks. And one of my favorites songs they did was called, “Bar-B-Q the Dog!” It was Mark Chambers’ commentary on the last agony of the long, overdone political atrocity known as the Cold War—when the “Russians were coming” and America was always “on the brink of invasion. The lyrics said it all: “They’re gonna get Mom! There gonna get Dad! They’re gonna BAR-B-Q the DOG!!!!!!!!!”

Some things are just too damn weird to be made up. Art imitates life. Life imitates Art. Art imitates Lunch. Fortunately people have always responded positively to the Mona Mohawk image. By 1984 I had made postcards and stickers of it. Later I was able to talk the first manager of Alternative Tentacles Records (Microwave) into making T-Shirts of it. He took a risk but it paid off and Mona Mohawk paid her way in the A.T. catalog. We’ve re-rendered her in several different manifestations over the years, including my favorite, created as a computer collage by my wife, Chick, for the invitation on the occasion of our wedding.

Since Chick herself had had numerous buzz-cuts, Mohawks and colorfully creative punk-inspired hair styles over the prior 13 years we’d known one another, this was entirely appropriate for our wedding, Professor Wavy Gravy presiding at the Washington Square Bar & Grill, an elegant setting not half a block from our home in North Beach. As Chick likes to remind our friends, “We got married in a Bar by a Clown!” (even though it was a very classy bar and Wavy is a very nice clown).WS-S4-6a

This very special and very limited edition of 13 hand-pulled prints available  exclusively from Station 4, featuring wildly inspired color effects, is the newest and perhaps the most audacious version of Mona Mohawk yet. We’re hoping the spirit of Leonardo is benevolently gazing down on our humble efforts and giving us his blessing in this artistically sincere rendering of his timeless masterpiece.

Over & Out.

Winston Smith
San Francisco
2009

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