Sea Change: Adamo Macri’s Dust Roe
by Kenneth Radu. Narrated by Sabrina S. Sutherland


Not long ago I was watching Monty Don, the English gardening guru, as he wandered among and expatiated about the fabulous water features of the Villa d’Este in Italy, during a segment of his television series on great Italian gardens. When he sauntered by the three ducts of Le Cento Fontane (The Hundred Fountains), out of which dozens of gargoyles spouted streams of water on the lowest level, I kept seeing the face of Adamo Macri’s distinctive portrait, Dust Roe. Given its peculiarities, such a face could well have been sculpted and secured to a brick wall for the sole purpose of pouring crystalline waters out of the conch shell replacing its mouth.

Art and water enjoy a long and varied history around the world in which masterpieces abound: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Monet’s water lilies, Dufy’s Baie des Anges (a favourite of mine), Hokusai’s Great Wave, and paintings by Turner, Homer, to name a few. The list is endless and must also include the art of photographers, filmmakers and writers. Moby Dick anyone? Whether it’s a turbulent ocean or a still pond, a lake or fountain, water with its energies, complexities of colour and depths of meaning has always attracted the artist, and everyone else as well. We are drawn to it, yearn for it, praise, fear it, and damn it. It washes through our erotic dreams, and symbolically imbues Macri’s exquisite Dust Roe. I don’t wish to digress into theories of evolution here, but our attraction might have something to do with our origins in the primeval sea.

Although no water is specifically depicted in Macri’s Dust Roe, there is delicate aquamarine, and there is the combination of shells attached to, or emerging from the face. I have returned to this portrait many times in a state of dry quandary. It was only during Monty Don’s charming stroll through the waterworks of the Villa d’Este that the pressure of wish and wonder burst like a broken main, and I experienced a silent flooding of ideas and feelings, all related to the implicit waters of Macri’s Dust Roe. I was submerged, and would not come up for air until I had done, even at the risk of drowning in confusion.

In Dust Roe, Macri is either immersed in implications, or I am changing my view of it as often as Proteus changes shape. Speaking of that slippery god, who assumes any number of identities to avoid foretelling the future if we try to grasp him between our hands, I must also mention the sea’s mutability. By its very nature, water changes and flows, gives and takes, just as a Macri portrait assumes the various meanings we shape around it, then seeps away, leaving us neck deep in our speculations. Somewhere in his writing (no, I don't have a footnote here), Jung suggests that Proteus is an apt symbol of the unconscious, but I wont wade in that murky sea. You see where a prolonged study of Dust Roe has led me, over my head in dangerous water.

Dust Roe is complex; it’s strange and lovely; it is also brilliant. Throwing adjectives at a work of art, however, never helps me understand why I find it so compelling. Yes, yes, I know: one need only feel and not think too much. So they say. I do not. Feeling and nothing but feeling leaves me floundering like, dare I say, a flounder out of water. I need to connect feeling with the hard ground of thought, even as I immerse myself in the destructive element. If I may be allowed to use Conrad’s famous bit of dialogue from his novel Lord Jim, a novel of the sea. Actually, what Stein, a character in the novel, says to Jim bears repeating because it reflects Macri’s own conception: 
…man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr?... No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.

Destruction here, as in Macri’s vision evident throughout his artistic oeuvre, means re-creation and transformation, a kind of wisdom born of experience and knowledge derived from the recognition of the deep and necessary nature of change and energy. We remain vital and alert in sensuous immediacy and in the creative eroticism of life in the midst of decay. Nicht wahr? Isn’t that true? One doesn’t necessarily drown after all, although I recall Macri’s haunting portrait, Memento Mori, which shares features with Dust Roe, a portrait rich with allusions to mortality of which Macri is acutely aware.

Still, there is that living, seemingly roving eye, the other one buried in the invisible depths of a shell protruding from the socket: one visible eye, singular, dark, peering upwards, and therefore emphatic. What does it portend: a fish eye, the Masonic eye, a spiritual eye, or the malocchio of Italian folklore? I don’t think we need to nail it down to one meaning. Suffice it to say that the presence of the eye in a face covered with shells of various sizes, attached to each other and forming a remarkable mask, directs me to look where it’s looking. And seeing what precisely? It’s puzzling, a response perhaps Macri symbolizes by the placement of a flat white puzzle piece on the right cheek.

I marvel at the silk-washed skin as smooth as marble; garlands of sea weed, shells and crystals in aquamarine; black hair so flattened as to form a tight-fitting cap; a loose undershirt reflecting the colours of the portrait; an opaque, sandy backdrop, a cord or string of bleached coral around the neck; and subtle shadows as if light is flickering beneath the surface of a calm sea. The carefully chosen elements of this portrait connect seamlessly, the consequence of Adamo Macri’s subtle, multi-faceted artistry. I did not at first notice, for example, that the garland seems to grow out of an ear, and there’s a trace of a beard beneath the mollusk shells. And I was led by the colour, details and implications of this portrait to similarities in Macri’s stunning Hinterland portrait.

Is it a mask or some inner force that emerges from the face of Dust Roe, a transformation of identity in the sea? Macri has long been fascinated with cellular changes and the slow breaking down of shape and structures in both organic life and inorganic matter. Moreover, he often merges human and inhuman in his art, a cross-fertilization of seeds from different species, if you will, as in the Epizoochory series. That phenomenon remains a perennially fascinating aspect of his art, the endless mutability of it, which eliminates rigid definitions and embraces change and fluidity. By the way, he has recently posted portraits called Coral Bleach, a nice play on words, and I can’t help but think that flesh is nibbled away by fish and bones ultimately are bleached white by the salty sea.

What of the title, Dust Roe? Why does he draw attention to fish eggs? On board a small, less than luxurious ship cruising the Volga in Russia several years ago, I lathered orange and black caviar on blinis for breakfast, eaten along with cucumbers, mushrooms, eggs, and shots of vodka sans orange juice. Dust is not so appetizing: an earthly reminder perhaps, almost Biblical and funereal, as in ash to ash, dust to dust. In Dust Roe there is indeed a suggestion of earthiness, or the sea floor beyond the reach of sunlight. Given Macri’s ironic propensities in his portraits (you don’t really stand on terra firma with this artist), I believe in the fundamental truths of his art: the mystery of beginnings; the relentless passage of time and consequent entropy; the transformation of inner selves and external reality; the incorporation of mythic elements in our contemporary, digital fantasies; the playful shifting of identities; and, not least, the ultimate absurdity of insisting on one point of view to the exclusion of all others.

Both dust and roe, therefore, make sense: out of something, call it an egg, and I can’t help at this moment but allude to Brancusi’s sensuous, egg-shaped sculpture entitled Beginning of the World. We develop parallel identities even as we also break down into something far from the original, at least in outward appearance. Beyond this point I do not wish to go at the moment. Adamo Macri often leads me (and I can’t be alone) along the mysterious paths of a complex, otherworldly garden and into sea changes caused by speculation and wonder. As long as my imagination is awash with his unique portraits and other works of art, I remain in a condition of change in a sea of alternatives. My swimming gets stronger, even as the clock keeps ticking to the end.

As Macri himself has said: I love the concept of mystery because it’s reflective of life. It holds the essence of newness because it doesn’t ever fully reveal itself. There isn’t anything more intriguing, elusive and ambiguous than the idea of time. Change can be significantly drastic, the shift in transformations become unrecognizable. The outer surface reinvents itself as the internal remains constant. These measures play with the concept of time, commonly understood as a gradual process. I’m known for being a masked artist in a constant state of flux.


Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected StoriesEarthbound and Net Worth (DC Books Canada).

Sea Change: Adamo Macri’s Dust Roe
Essay by Kenneth Radu - January 2019
Narrated by 
Sabrina S. Sutherland

Sabrina S. Sutherland is an American producer. She was Production Coordinator for the second season of Twin Peaks, On The Air, Hotel Room, Associate Producer of David Lynch's Inland Empire, Producer of Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, Executive Producer for the 2017 series of Twin Peaks.