I’ve recently finished a painting truly in the round, a fanciful forest-scape depicting a hermit, naturally enough, reflecting upon his mortality , painted upon a life sized plastic skull.
Let me tell you , painting in the round with some degree of detail is no simple task.
For this “painting” I have focused upon the memento mori theme, the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth; hermits and Holy Fools and Death Angels populate this fertile sylvan scene.
I’ve crammed the narrative upon every surface of the skull, deliberately treating the surface not as a figure in the round but as a flat surface, allowing the surface narrative to meander as life itself.
My intention with the piece was to create an object of reflection , to be handled and meditated upon; a bauble for a wunderkammer.
The ultimate reveal being its base, where Life defeats Death, cradling slightly phallic Amanita muscaria toadstools.
The piece was inspired by an international art collective I was to be included in, a plastic blank skull arriving by oversea post. Initially I was excited by this joint venture, I do not collaborate generally but I was eager to see what I had hoped to be like minded folk from across the globe found inspiring in this most basic and eternal theme. Sadly, thus far, pretty tame: the usual “Steampunk” sort of treatment ; the gratuitous appropriation of traditional Oaxacan decorative arts and Posada’s Catrina; faux finishes, beads and sparkly bits . The occasional preparation of shot of a skull smoking .
Schoolyard stunts. I’m surmising Death might NOT have been pondered by my fellow artists, a theme once universally explored, now it seems too terrible to bear contemplating. Hence the pretty beadwork. I’m grateful to my neighbors here in LA with our annual Dia de los Muertos festival reminders, festive, beautiful, mindful.
But this is a theme I’ve long contemplated, making my peace with fear by walking side by side with Death, first in my youth through the AIDS crisis, and now to this day as I approach my final chapter. Never knowing when my spin of the Danse macabre will be upon me, I want to stay mindful of just how precious this miracle of Life really is.
This has lead to a large body of work reminding me time and again to be present, to be grateful , and to have a little fun with Death, making Lord Bones and Lady Skull laugh along with me.
A sample follows:
In the end I might decline the collaborative invitation, if the work doesn’t go beyond the superficial or decorative , I feel less inclined to participate . But nonetheless, grateful to reflect, brush in hand, on this great reality and chuckle a bit in the process.
2 thoughts on “The Eternal Cycle”
As you know Leonard, I was raised Catholic, which has led me, as an adult, to an enduring fascination with the “mysteries” that both art and religion ponder, which is a fascination I know we share. The object orientation of Catholicism has distinct parallels with the charged objects shown in galleries and museums, and for me your interpretation of this decorated skull challenge is a thought-provoking marriage of these two worlds.
I am currently enjoying reading about Kiki Smith’s artistic practice, who also shares our Catholic upbringing, and I thought what she says about the links between her childhood Catholicism and her adult life as an artist may resonate with you at this time:
“I think the thing about making things is that you have a proof. You have some proof every day that something has been accomplished, that something’s different….It’s one of my loose theories that Catholicism and art have gone well together because both believe in the physical manifestation of the spiritual world, that it’s through the physical world that you have a spiritual life, that you have to be here physically in a body. You have all this interaction with objects, with rosaries and medals. It believes in the physical world. It’s a ‘thing’ culture. It’s also about storytelling in that sense, about reiterating over and over and over again these mythological stories about saints and other deities that can come and intervene for you on your behalf. All the saints have attributes that are attached to them and you recognize them through their iconography. And it’s about transcendence and transmigration, something moving always from one state to another. And art is in a sense like a proof: it’s something that moves from your insides into the physical world.”
The modern age is obsessed with the individual, which has come with the alienation of death from many parts of society, especially in the ‘first-world’ countries in which we live. I understand how you are mourning this loss, especially at a time when so many of us across the world have spent a year in isolation from each other, with the grim reaper compiling a daily league table of deaths. What I was wondering is if what you are currently seeing as the marked difference in your interpretation of this brief may ultimately lead some viewers to wanting to find out more about the rich panolpy of ideas that inform your artistic practice, as who knows who is out there waiting to encounter your art?! The possibility of engaging with the imagination of another human being and the profound connection between artist and viewer to which this can lead is what keeps me looking at art. Meaning is a gift any one of us can give and it lives in the quiet space that opens out mysteriously between the work of art and its beholder, and it is in this freeing of our personality from its isolation, in this uniting of it with others, where the joy of art lies for me.
I’m going to sign off with these words from Ben Okri on the enduring power of storytelling, which I am hoping may help you in your decision making about what happens to the all the stories you have captured in your skull as memento mori:
“The mystery of storytelling is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds. It is the multiplicity of responses which a single text can generate within the mind’s unfailing capacity for wonder. Storytellers are a tiny representative of the greater creative forces. And like all artists they should create beauty as best as they can, should serve truth, and remember humility, and when their work is done and finely crafted, arrowed to the deepest points in the reader’s heart and mind, they should be silent, leave the stage, and let the imagination of the world give sanctuary.”
My friend ,
Thank you for this encouragement and I will heed your suggestions . I too easily despair and sink into self pity and self imposed isolation; withdrawal over engagement.
I agree, who can predict who will ,or when, stumble upon the making?
How on earth did chance allow the two of us to meet, an encounter I treasure.
Smith’s thoughts seem spot on, it is the faith of artists. Okri I am going to have to read, I haven’t yet , but every quote you’ve forwarded has resonated.
So once again gratitude for your keen perception and insight.
Love from here,