Nicholas Baxter

Second Skin Group Show: Denial Vanitas

Below is a preview of my submission for the Second Skin group show opening this weekend at Copro Gallery in California.

Previously I blogged about the technical process involved in creating this painting here and here.

Thematically, the painting and its title “Denial Vanitas” refers to the pioneering work of Ernest Becker, cultural anthropologist, who studied the phenomenon of mankind’s denial of death.  He came to believe that each individual’s primal fear of death is a subconscious motivational factor in nearly all of our actions–especially in aggressive or violent ones–which culminates, finally, on a societal scale in the form of wars, bigotry, or genocide.

Download the full map of Becker’s ideas here.

This theory coincides with Buddhist teachings on the nature of self, or Ego, as a psychological construct constantly seeking to substantiate itself in concrete terms, as an (ultimately futile) antidote to the fundamental groundlessness and impermanence of existence. A human ego (either individually or collectively) reaches a pathological state when it resorts to acts of aggression or violence in order to claim power and thus prove it exists.

I worked these concepts, using very non-traditional subject matter, into the long tradition of Vanitas still life painting as a statement on the tragic ironies of postmodern consumer culture.

“Denial Vanitas”, oil on panel, 11 x 14in, 2012

Death permeates our lives in these times where everything seems designed and destined for the dumpster, quickly disposed of, after a short and meaningless servitude. Yet surprisingly, a collective denial deepens as the energetic, smooth-skinned bodies and carefree attitudes of the young are fetishized and promoted as the ultimate achievement.  Death is taboo, a relic buried under layers of styrofoam and sealed in cardboard boxes, forgotten in dusty attics and closets. But skeletons emerge from this denial, as wars rage across the earth and the planet’s very life-sustaining capacity threatens to collapse from our industrialized aggression.

Only after we’ve uncovered the denied aspects of our motivations, finding wholeness in a once-fractured psyche, can we truly embrace each fleeting moment and deeply appreciate the preciousness of all life.