Art-Making in Troubled Times

When I started this series of work on the afterlife in early 2016, the only reservation I had was that it’s largely apolitical. I knew it wouldn’t allow me to comment in any kind of direct way on world events.

More and more I believe I have a responsibility to speak out about the injustices of the world.  So why am I making art about something that seems, at first glance, to be very separate from the here and now?

The answer? It’s maybe not as separate as you’d think.

Afterlife Figure in Mixed Media

“It’s hard work to untie knots” is one of the first finished pieces in my afterlife series. I was very into Buddhism for a few years when I was younger and I see echoes of that in this work around ideas of attachment and impermanence.

Though I don’t often talk about it, the conviction that our system is failing and our priorities as a society are fundamentally wrong is a big part of who I am.

As an artist, I consciously and unconsciously weave this perspective into my work on the afterlife. It’s subtle, maybe even invisible to some, but it is there.

It’s in the symbols of the golden egg and the empty dish, in the delicate application of imitation gold leaf to hundred-year-old paper, in the natural objects I incorporate and the stories of the characters I create.

But is it enough?

Afterlife Drawings

This drawing from my afterlife series features imagery around poverty and lack. Is this a soul in the process of letting go or one still trapped in the search for material things?

A lot has been written about politics and art lately, including a great article last week called Art as mirror of this dark moment by Sebastian Smee. In it he writes:

The artists who feel most in tune with what is going on right now are not, by and large, overtly political artists. Political speech has a strange way of not really applying to anyone… The same, unfortunately, is true of most well-intentioned political art.
Great art is different. It applies to me, to you.  The artists who speak most cogently to the present are interested in something deeper than truisms. They’re not trying to check identity boxes. They’re not trying to preach to the converted. They are interested in conveying what Francis Bacon called “the brutality of fact.”

The article suggests not only that art can be relevant in times like ours without being in-your-face political, but that its relevance can be timeless. Great art can speak to the current moment from decades in the past, or from the present to the future.

Painting in Progress

Applying molecules and micro-organisms in orange paint to a work in progress in the studio this week.  These tiny bits of biology are the stuff of which we’re made and to which we return.  Dust to dust.

Of course, I’m hardly painting in the tradition of Francis Bacon, and my afterlife work is in some ways built on a foundation of “truisms.”

But in the context of Western society, I’d actually argue that these are “lost truisms,” things we collectively deny thousands of times each day in the ways we treat ourselves, each other and our environment. These underpinnings of our existence have somehow been made to seem absurd in our modern, secular, capitalist world.

They are:

We are fragile, unique, transient and flawed biological beings, part of the natural cycle of life and death, part of nature itself and ultimately separated from all that we achieve and accumulate in our material lives.

Mixed Media Afterlife Figure

“Disband himself, and scatter all his powers” is another of my early finished afterlife works in pencil, acrylic, ink, imitation gold leaf, watercolor and collage on a blank page from an old copy of the Book of Common Prayer.

William S. Burroughs wrote that “One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and what they don’t know that they know.”

For me that suggests (like Smee’s writing) that the artist’s job isn’t to teach or preach.  Instead, the job of the artist is to create a sort of shovel that the viewer can use to dig into their own thoughts, feelings, perspectives and memories in ways they otherwise might not.

For now, as I continue to recover my health and get comfortable with my new artistic process, the task of “shovel-making” in my afterlife work is enough for me.

I hope that in its own small way this body of work will help clear space for personal reflection and “digging” amidst the cult of materialism and busyness that surrounds us.

If you enjoyed this post please take a moment to share it.