[The gallery shows artists I’ll feature in this post.]
I have to face it. A lot of people don’t like my art because of the content. They say it is unpleasant! And people suggest I tone it down, and switch up my subject matter for something more peaceful or uplifting, or at least not as graphic, gross, and sometimes violent. They remind me that in person I’m a joker who does voice impressions, and I’m not gloomy. But I am drawn to the tragic (and the tragicomic), especially when rendered beautifully. Of course not all my art is dark, or tragic, but quite a lot of it is. Rather than change, here I will take some time to celebrate the dark and tragic in art.
Following I will present each artist with their own section including commentary and several images.
My initial reaction to this was probably something like “Holy Shit.!”, and then, “Yes!” Now, admittedly, even for me, Suzzan Blac’s oeuvre is a bit hard to take as the dominant color and texture is bloody flesh. There’s not a lot of breathing room in there. But I love this painting. The double eyes, the head in the mouth, the teeth, the rivulets of blood. It’s over-the-top, but I think a masterpiece of Expressionism. Artists are like baseball players – we don’t always hit it out of the park, but sometimes we do, and this painting did.
Here’s a gallery of some more of her rather harrowing work.
This piece by Andrew Newton is rather hard to look at, but also gorgeous. I wrote an article about him, so I’ll just quote myself on this painting.
Oh no! Ouch! Yuck! I don’t wanna’ look! And yet… it’s beautiful. As a painting this has a lot of vitality: vivid color, energetic brushwork, and a variety of methods of applying paint (such as pressing it on with something like a cloth). But the effect is as unsettling as a graphic photo of an operation. The thick red line under her eye, and the reds and whites coming together in a mash of pigment, suggest injury, shock, and the unforgiving randomness of reality.
Here’s a couple more for your delectation.
Andrew’s work is not as deliberately, specifically, and unrelievedly dark as Blac’s work, but these images have an existential sort of shock to them that is very jarring.
Another artist took exception to my sharing this work and voiced serious objection. And this is a good point to discuss the question of whether or not we want this sort of image hanging on the wall in our living rooms. No, not really. But I also don’t want some of my favorite songs, like “Working Class Hero” or “Masters of War” as my alarm clock in the morning. That’s why we have elevator music, or muzak.
Serious art, like serious music, is not intended to adorn the living room or supply a congenial atmosphere for the elevator, hotel room, or mall shopping experience. That’s what we call drivel, or milquetoast. Serious art wants to grapple with the nature of reality and the human condition.
Bryan Kent Ward
Bryan Kent Ward’s series revolving around people with broken-open heads is not for the faint of heart. Death is going to be dark. For some, death is just something nonexistent after life is over, and thus nothing to think about. However, even if one subscribes to that viewpoint, the prospect of non-existence looms over the sensitive soul, and a full appreciation of life requires an awareness of death. I interviewed Ward here, so I can quote him directly about his intent behind this piece.
The “Breaking Open the Head” piece which is from a suicide is the inspiration for the series. It all started with me coming across the photograph on the internet, it was such a striking image that I knew I wanted to create something from it. And the idea of that image, which would typically construed as “negative”, was something that was inspiring me to create art is an interesting concept to engage in. Out of something negative, a positive. Out of death, creation. And then it went further with me thinking about what drove this woman to jump off a balcony on the inside of a hotel, me wrestling with my own ideas of mortality and even my own suicidal issues I’ve struggled with in my life. At around the same time I had read Daniel Pinchbeck’s book by the same title, and had been starting what became a series of trips to the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon to work with the brew known as Ayahuasca …All of these ideas coalesced into the painting that you see, which in turn inspired more paintings. I wanted something beautiful to come out of the darkness, a rebirth so to speak.
Here are some more rather challenging images by Ward:
Sometimes people will attack this kind of work as “sensationalist”. I asked Bryan if people objected to the graphic nature of these images, and he had this to say:
As with all provocative art you are instigating some kind of reaction. I most definitely am not and do not make art to be sensationalist. I have always been inspired by art that makes you think and even more so to feel something, whether it’s obvious or not. I have always tried to make art, whether its visual or audio or whatever, that I myself would get something out of. So ultimately I obviously know I have an audience but I don’t make art to be sensationalist, but sometimes to provoke.
This is not a pretty picture. It’s beautiful. The audacity of slamming us with that vibrant orange, while placing smack in the center of the triptych a body that has been riddled with bullets. There’s a vicious spray of blood on the pillow, and splatters of blood on the black shade behind the figure. But this is not “horror”, at least not in the sense of a “horror movie” which is just dark fantasy. This is the horror of the real. Francis Bacon is probably my favorite of 20th century artists, and it has a lot to do with his unflinching examination of “the brutality of fact” in a post WWII world. I consider Bacon an existentialist painter, who deals with the difficult quality of “being” in his work. Rather than depict people as they look according to the mechanical eye of the camera, Bacon sought to capture something of their presence through abstracting their visage to the point of being a visceral slap in the face. His paintings have the same sort of effect as Abstract Expressionist paintings, in which the textural quality of the painted surface is an inescapable fact, but Bacon further infuses the swatches of paint with the human stain.
Here are some more of Bacon’s paintings:
Zdzisław Beksiński is kind of like H.R. Giger, in that his work has a popular appeal that the other art I’ve shared so far does not. Beksinski’s work is fantastic (as in “fantasy”) enough that is seems more like an alternate universe than a direct reflection on the one we live in, and people are a lot more comfortable with that. His work resembles more a nightmare than a confrontation with something like the aftermath of a massacre. Some people will love his art specifically for what it is, and others will reject it out of hand for the same reason. I’m more in the middle.
I’m particularly fond of Beksinski’s cruciforms, all of which I’ve been able to find are below:
Gottfried Helnwein renders disturbing psychological tableaux that let us know something’s gone horribly wrong. I usually can’t pinpoint what precisely they are saying, so I’m forced to conjure scenarios to fit the imagery, none of them fun and easy.
Puzzle over some more of Helnwein’s images:
James Juron is another artist who tries to lay the human condition bare in pigment on canvas. Here we see a head smooshed as if we are looking at someone who ran face-first into a pane of glass. It also reminds me of the startled/accepting expressions of fighters when they are stunned by a serious blow. It’s a momentary slip out of the quotidian and into the actual.
Here are several more of Juron’s paintings:
It took me a while to “get” Frank Auerbach. He has about the most thickly slathered painted figures in art history, but I used to think the paint was overmuch and replaced rather than revealed the identity of the sitter. It’s rather odd to learn that someone actually had to sit in person for this portrait. Bacon used photos, and one can see the semblance between his paintings and the photos he used. But Auerbach uses conventional sitters who stay put for hours as he tries to capture their likeness. That exquisite painterly mess is supposed to actually look like someone!
Like Bacon, Auerbach strove to capture the essence of a person via a vigorous and visceral form of abstraction. It’s an amazing painting. The way I came to understand his art was to not see him as capturing a being with paint, but creating one out of paint. It’s as if he’d created a being that exists in another, painterly dimension of reality. The painted personage comes alive, so to speak. But let’s admit that this face is obliterated, no matter how sumptuously. Many find it hideous, crude, and unskilled, but it is gorgeous, sophisticated, and requires a particular set of skills that only Auerbach really possesses (having invented them himself).
Here are some more of his ecstatic painterly portraits:
Olivier de Sagazan
I don’t know much about this artist, and even the Wikipedia entry is not in English. Critics might say that his performances, on which his paintings are based, are overblown theatrics signalling a faux angst. But the image above has an impact I think a lot of people will resonate with. Supposedly it is a “painting” but to me it looks more like a photo from one of his performances that has been painting on.
The artists has said, “I am interested in seeing to what degree people think it’s normal, or even trite to be alive”. At his best his portraits, if you can call them that, remind me a bit of Frankenstein’s monster: some creature that has come into being rather tragically and must suddenly confront his own terribly flawed existence.
Here are some more of his paintings from performances.
Eric Pennington has done portraits similar to Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Andrew Newton, and Jay Juron. He tries to capture the exhilarated, vanquished, exultant presence of his subject. His portraits howl, “I AM!”.
The “Smiling Man” [above] sings with irony, because while his mouth is frozen in an exaggerated clown grimace, he appears more like he’s crying, especially in the one desperate glinting eye. He looks like he was shot, and his face is splattered and erupting in blood. Meanwhile the arc of fluid above his head suggests violent motion.
Pennington has gone on to do much more elaborate paintings, and exquisite drawings (I’m working on a post about his art), but his early heads are among my favorite of his works.
David A Magitis
Magitis’s paintings fall generally within the “horror/macabre” genre, but occasionally transcend it, if for no other reason than just how imaginative they can be, in which case they shade into Surrealism or a difficult to categorize grey area that I find more interesting than fixed genres.
Here are a few more for your enjoyment.
Jacqueline Gallagher mixes the hideous and the beautiful in lush, luminous oils. In this neon-lit portrait, the woman is being consumed by a gigantic, pulsating, glowing larva. The overgrown grub, if you didn’t know what it was, could pass for a fur that the woman is sensuously caressing. The first impression is of beauty, but then the horrific sets in, as one notices how the parasite has attached itself to her chest, and is quite probably nibbling off her face.
Here are some more examples of Gallagher’s lavish monstrosities:
Joe Coleman is himself kind of a scary guy. I originally knew him as the performance artist who would go around with fireworks strapped to his chest, provoke people in bars, and then set them off. He’d show up with phrases written on his forehead, perhaps in blood, my favorite of which was, ‘Give Christ back to the Martians!” Later he went on to make comics and really gory, freak show, outsider art type, horror vacui paintings. “Killer Doctors”, which I find a bit too grisly and morbid for my tastes, is nevertheless an amazing painting. The more and closer you look, the more awful things you will find, but the colors and textures go together magnificently. There’s so much obsessive compulsive detail that the intricately textured end result is something like a Jackson Pollock. Just look at the stains on the doctors’ white coats.
Joe’s idea of a good subject for a painting is a serial killer, and he’s done several of them, including this one of Henry Lee Lucas (incidentally the only death row inmate George W. Bush spared).
And here are some more of his unsettling paintings:
Max Beckmann rejected non-representational painting, and while the Americans were finding new ways to fling, stain, and spill paint on canvas, he was doing mythological figurative images which often referenced the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. Many a limb or head is cut off in Beckman’s work, and people are tied together or stuffed in cages. In this brutal painting there are two conspicuously decapitated women in a pool of their own blood.
Beckmann refused to give a specific interpretation of his painting, Departure, below, but it was made after the Nazis fired him from his job as an art professor, and before his forced emigration. The left panel is the most horrific, especially the bound, naked man, with both hands cut off.
Beckmann’s art raises the question of how artists respond to the political atmosphere in which they live. Do they turn away, like Matisse, and devote themselves to preserving the sanctity of a quiet, privileged life of painting nudes and still lifes, or do they confront the brutality and insanity in order to oppose it?
Here are more of his paintings involving barbarity.
Golub’s mature work focuses on mercenaries, violence, and torture. The most impressive paintings have a single figure, who is a powerless captive of callous brutes indifferent to his or her suffering. These kind of paintings make me angry, but also make me stop and think about how men behave in groups when they have power, and some rationale with which to attack a victim. At the same time the image below is horrendous, it is also a subtle composition with a very satisfying combination of complementary pinks, greens, grays, and oranges.
Lastly I include myself for some of my harder imagery. The piece above has been compared to work by Golub, and I have been advised that this type of work will not sell because it is too dark, and I should cease or make less in this style. If interested, you can find out much more about this image here.
A lot of my imagery reflects my own coming to grips with the human condition, with what it means to be conscious, and with affronts to our sense of security, wholeness, comfort, justice, or reality. I’ve always been drawn to tragedy, bad luck, abrupt turns of fate, and the struggle of consciousness against the inescapable fact of its finitude. One of my pieces that best illustrates the later is “Infinite Objectivity”, which shows three conscious robots in the process of being obliterated, on the assembly line, specifically because they have awakened.
Here are some of my other images that deal with similar topics:
My work frequently has that dark edge to it, and I don’t think it’s something I can shake, at least not right now. The next piece coming down the pike is certainly going to be dark. It’s almost finished. Stay tuned.
And you can see all of my new art here
I know, I didn’t include Goya’s Disasters of War, or Hieronymus Bosch. I think people are already familiar with those artists.
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