Modern Culture, the Afterlife and Contemporary Art

“…to him the wall / That sunders ghosts and shadow-casting men / Became a crystal, and he saw them thro’ it, / And heard their voices talk behind the wall, / And learnt their elemental secrets, powers / And forces;”

–Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

There’s a real ebb and flow to life as an artist.

The past few months I’ve definitely felt it. I haven’t been creating as much, but as my series on the afterlife continues, I can feel my work finally beginning to find it’s shape and depth. Little by little, my inspiration for this art is filtering through into the work itself.

As much as this work is a response to the loss of my father in 2013, it’s even more a response to the void in how modern culture treats dying and the afterlife. We have no narrative for the afterlife, no imagery to represent it (beyond the classic figure-silhouetted-in-front-of-a-bright-light) and no rituals around the moment of a person’s passing.

For someone navigating the death of a loved one without the benefit of religious faith or links to traditional culture, this void it can feel like an endless chasm. My work around the afterlife is about crossing that chasm. It’s about beginning to patch some of the holes modern culture, not with a singular narrative around dying and the afterlife, but with imagery that leaves itself open to many narratives, or even any narratives, including the beliefs that the afterlife can only ever be unknown or even that there is no afterlife at all.

I think one place–maybe the last place–where we can address big questions like this is through the arts. Art isn’t expected to be rational and objective like science, or private like religion. In a strange way, art acts as a sort of loophole in the linear, material, scientific world we Westerners like to pretend we inhabit. Like the crystal wall in Tennyson’s poem, art lets us traverse things that are otherwise blocked.

 

17-01-30-21-13-10-corr-crop-1080w
Tiny inked molecules and organisms inspired by scientific imagery.

 

17-01-30-11-24-56-light-corr-crop-1080
Collage work in progress showing more inked organisms inspired by scientific illustration.
17-01-30-13-30-30-corr-1200
Study in progress from my afterlife series.

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.

Surreal Figures of the Afterlife

“…to him the wall / That sunders ghosts and shadow-casting men / Became a crystal, and he saw them thro’ it, / And heard their voices talk behind the wall, / And learnt their elemental secrets, powers / And forces;”

–Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

I found that quotation last week in a coverless, turn-of-the-century copy of Tennyson’s epic poem “The Idylls of the King” which I’ve been cutting up for textual fragments to use in my mixed media work.

The words leapt out at me as a wonderful (if romantic) description of what it’s been like for me making art about the afterlife.

The work I’m doing now is based around a set of surreal figures I’m creating through the process of collage, some of whom are shown in the photo above. To me, these beings (or non-beings) seem a lot like Tennyson’s “ghosts” behind the wall, inhabitants of a rich and secret world as real as our own but wholly apart.

Some of these figures I imagine representing the dead themselves, while others feel more like ancient guides or keepers of the realm beyond. Still others seem like both. I get the sense that they all have their own individual stories, parts of which are revealed to me as I work.

Over the past few months many of these figures have become like familiar friends to me. As subjects for drawings and paintings, they’ve grown and developed across different media in unexpected ways.

Throughout the fall and winter I’ll be posting more about these figures as well as sharing some of my drawings, paintings and mixed media work around them. I also have a larger assemblage-based project underway which incorporates some of these collages and I’ll be giving you a sneak peek at that in the coming months as well.

For now though, I think I’ll take a page out of Tennyson’s book and share a more poetic description of what it feels like to work with these subjects.

Often draped in flowing clothes, faceless and swathed in the imagery of nature, life, death, wealth, poverty, religion and even science, they loom out at me with a sort of casual indifference as I work.

To them, I am the ghost. The afterlife is a busy place and this business of death and dying is neverending.

I try to interrupt them as little as possible as I peer through the crystal wall and make my work of quiet observation.

I know I will be here watching and listening for a while.

 


 

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be posting more pictures and writing about my work on the afterlife so stay tuned!