COVER ART: The Making of Horseback’s “The Gorgon Tongue”

Γοργόνειον III”, the front cover painting commissioned by Relapse Records for Horseback’s double album “The Gorgon Tongue” has quite a bit of history behind it. Jenks Miller, a good friend of mine, a fellow seeker and leader of the band, has been following my research of the Gorgon cycle for a couple of years and I believe giving you some background might help understand the choice of imagery and its relation to the music.

The series of Gorgon’s head studies was inspired by a childhood experience or rather a trauma, which I can’t share on here. The encounter was filtered through my life-long fascination with ancient Greek mythology and crystallized in an image of the mortal Gorgon sister, Medousa/Medusa.

Traditional Gorgoneion is a powerful symbol: the eye of the storm, individuation, a harness for instincts and the ultimate protection talisman, to mention just a few symbolic facets. Indeed, my idea was to trap the devilish vision in a “shielding” image, a charm of sorts, and I knew it would take more than one attempt before I get to the “main nerve”.

My preliminary sketching process involves research of cultural roots, artistic tradition, meditation and producing automatic studies. All forced shapes or compositions that don’t emerge from depths of this sea of reflection and concentration will always be discarded. Thankfully there is hardly any shortage in either authentic, equally stunning versions of the legend of the head’s retrieval or artistic legacy inspired by the magnificent trophy (and I encourage you to investigate the subject on your own).

The majority of known renditions of Medusa share one serious flaw: artists of all epochs seem to have fallen victims to their own imagination or been overwhelmed by their contemporary canon; they eagerly placed the glaring eyes at the center of composition thus revealing purely theatric nature of those artistic endeavours. The gorgons we see on ancient Greek amphoras and sculpted plaques, in the Renaissance, Pre-Raphaelite and fin de siècle paintings and sculpture are as beautiful as they are sterile, we look them straight in the eye and they don’t inspire fear in our hearts let alone petrify our flesh.

This is why I took a completely different direction. In my studies the head would serve as an ornate mounting for the deadly jewels of eyes, which I didn’t – and still don’t – feel competent enough to paint.

I finished the first study back in 1998. The piece was bought by a British collector right away and I lost its track, unfortunately. Even though I don’t have a photograph of the actual oil painting, this sketch does pretty good job at conveying the emotion I was after with the first take fashioned in a rather modernist vein: an outline glimpsed at the razorblade of awareness, a nightmare haunting the hero in the waking world.

It took me more than a decade to complete “Γοργόνειον II”. In order to bring it closer to the revered image from my childhood I introduced a few distinct femme fatale traits to the demonic visage, this time the eyelids were pictured tightly shut adding to the beastly sexuality of the picture.

The third study has enjoyed three dramatically different stages so far. Initially I went for an orthodox church mural feel, a dark icon. My ambition was to conjure an object of terror-infused worship, an angry goddess’s face. The first incarnation was completed last summer and even though it successfully portrayed the sublime romanticism of this carnage of mystery while simultaneously introducing the subjects of sacrifice, rebirth and inspiration (Pegasus being born from the eyes of the beheaded witch) the ghostly composition ate up quite a bit of focus I had had in mind for this life-size canvas (dimensions are 90×70 cm).

This version was exhibited in Moscow as a part of “Geysers of Subconsciousness” show, after which I put it aside for a while as I had other projects to attend to.

Half a year later Jenks got in touch and asked if I would do cover artwork for a double-disc collection of quaint, more abstract Horseback material. Much like Jenks I was extremely happy with our previous collaborations (I did the cover/poster drawing for “The Invisible Mountain” commissioned by Utech Records back in 2009 and a vast piece for Horseback’s upcoming full-length album, “Half Blood”) and found this opportunity to contribute once again very thrilling, of course.

Jenks suggested that “Γοργόνειον III” fit the concept perfectly as it reflected the spirit of the albums included in the double-disc set: beauty and horror, calm and tempest, reason and chaos. This duality culminated in the very format of the release and indeed seemed appropriate. Yet, the offer caught the painting half way through the next phase of transformation: this time I imagined the head as a portal, a magickal gateway and was in the midst of automatic paint-drawing stage. The initial “icon” painting had been hopelessly buried under layers of new paint. Even though Jenks found this direction exciting I had very little time at my disposal (less than a week) so the process turned hectic. The all-new delicate background setting, the silver hairpin “pitchfork”, the knots and the wing-like hair formations helped the picture’s focus immensely and both Jenks and Relapse crew enjoyed the result.

But the story of the painting’s transformation wasn’t over. A fortnight passed since I had sent the picture file out to Relapse’s design department when I received a call from an old friend and fan, an art collector from Saint-Petersburg. He suggested I should return to this Gorgon-themed altar installation idea we had toyed with about a year ago. The polyptych in question would include half a dozen of paintings and form a life-size figure (corpse) of the gigantic priestess of terror.

In order to get things started and give the client a good taste of what I was after with this monumental piece I decided to use the second state of Γοργόνειον IIIas a basis for another study.

In this take I aimed to unite the archaic male demon Gorgon with its later three-sisters incarnation in order to attempt to stir archetypal puddle of lore. Heads of Medusa (“guardian”), Stheno (“forceful”), and Euryale (“far-roaming”) form the devil’s triangle, maintain the duality mentioned above on a different level: the figure offers threat and protection in equal measures.

** Horseback’s “The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet” is out May 10th on Relapse Records. Order it here.