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  • Robert Brinkerhoff

Inferno XXX: Slapstick


Inferno XXX: A Punch and Judy Interlude Ink on paper, 2021 22 x 15” We've reached Canto XXX, continuing Dante's tour of the 10th bolgia in the 8th circle of Inferno. Here we meet counterfeiters of coin and falsifiers of words—in short, liars in both word and deed. While hearing from a lute-shaped counterfeiter named Master Adam, a row breaks out when Sinon, the duplicitous Greek who brought on the fall of Troy, is insulted.

* * * I had the benefit of an artists residency the first two weeks of August at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where I was able to knock a dent in the project. These opportunities for unfettered work are exceedingly rare, and VCCA is one of the best places to get things done. They house and feed artists, composers and writers year-round in a beautiful pastoral setting, and my studio was ideally set up for the work I needed to complete.


I finished four drawings—for Canti XXIX through XXXII—and this was a very gratifying turn for me. While some of the earlier pictures took less time to complete, the more recent drawings seem to be taking forever. This was certainly the case with Canto XXIX, which necessitated working from 630am until 9pm over the course of three days. I only broke for meals, and was so grateful for the time and space to get things done.


After the tedium of drawing Canto XXIX, I needed a different approach to preserve my sanity, so I reviewed some of the older drawings for inspiration. I happened upon a drawing from Canto XIII, and decided to think over ways to represent the content using this stylistic convention—one characterized by a pronounced sense of design.


At the residency there was a wonderful swimming pool, nestled on the perimeter of the property. When a drawing was finished, the pool provided a change of scenery from the studio after being holed up for days at a time. I brought my sketchbook there to study the poem and think through ideas for the next drawing.


Canto XXX is one of the more raucous chapters of the poem, with its near slapstick tussle between two characters: Master Adam, a Florentine counterfeiter so stricken with dropsy that his body has assumed the bulbous shape of a lute; and Sinon, the Greek soldier who convinced the people of Troy that the horse looming outside their gates was a precious gift. Some visual thinking eventually led to the intersection of the heavily designed style with the Punch-and-Judy-like fight between Master Adam and Sinon, and I envisioned a shadow puppet theater as a way to set the scene. I'm thrilled when things work out this way—when form and content collide, resulting in otherwise unexpected decisions.


In the finished drawing, Dante and Virgil are cast as spectators at the top of the drawing, alongside symbols of fraud (the leopard and serpent). They flank a fleur de lis, symbol of Florence and the home of both Dante and Master Adam. Below, the two characters face off with costumed theatricality while the geology of hell frames the scene.


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