“Denial Vanitas” Redux
You know that thing that happens when you stare at a single word for too long, and the letters start to separate themselves, become individual symbols, and your brain starts to mistakenly think you’ve misspelled the word? The original form and meaning of the word dissolve into the existential void and our primal phenomenological sensing ability comes back to the forefront, from the recesses of our “reptile brain.” (Comedian Chris Farley’s hilarious take on this concept from the incredible movie Black Sheep featuring the word “roads…rooooads…rowads…rroowwads” comes to mind…)
Well, um, anyway. That happened. When I was composing my last blog entry about my new painting, I kept staring at the words “Denial Vanitas,” checking for misspellings before going live with the post, and this psychedelic subconscious shift took place:
I’m a huge Daniel Vitalis fan so this is not nearly as surprising as it is amusing. Just thought I’d share.
And while I’m at it, I should share another amusing corollary: there’s an excellent documentary about the death-denial work of Ernest Becker (mentioned in the previous post) called Flight From Death that was envisioned and co-produced by a longtime acquaintance of mine, Greg Bennick.
Painting: the quest for immortality.
I’m also a huge Greg Bennick fan. But I originally know him from his long run as vocalist for the seminal hardcore/punk band Trial–one of the most inspiring hardcore bands ever. Here’s why, some sample lyrics:
In The Balance
while i choke strangled by the hands of time
my life slowly slips away
the dollars i save aren’t worth the days i’d spend
with images of freedom as lies in my head
the hand that feeds will always bleed me dry
though these hours, these minutes, these moments, are mine
no one else will guide the way
break the silence before it breaks us…
down to a point from where there’s no escape
where regret destroys whatever life remains
and you, when you’ve told yourself a lie
the path of least resistance destroys you in time
is it heresy to want to live today? that’s not asking too much
so many are barely getting by, and starving in the streets
while in denial of death, yet still afraid to be free
we grovel beneath the pantheon of security
assured as we sell our dreams to buy our pain
that “the meek shall inherit” when only the strong will reign
all life hangs in the balance, i won’t wait until it drops
i can’t wait, they might not have another day
i have to live, i might not have even one more day
Live in Chicago. I am buried somewhere in that pile of humans.
I find it interesting how my influences–both personal and artistic–show up in everything I create. So maybe this is all more proof that everything is connected? There are no coincidences.
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.
Last year I gave my friend Emily a secret preview showing of my Reclaiming series before shipping them off to Portland for their debut at a gallery there. Emily’s first impressions of the images I had created resurfaced powerfully in a dream soon after. Long the recipient of intensely detailed dreams, with the gift of remembrance, she recollects these on her (often quite entertaining) online dream journal called Minds In Morpheus.
Step into Emily’s Baxter-illustrated Surrealist dreamscape here.
I always appreciate the connection of my work to the unconscious or subconscious realms, as my paintings are often adaptations of visions from my own dream life. Emily’s narrative featuring my images was a fun little escape, a creative exercise in stream-of-consciousness association not all too dissimilar from the parlour game Exquisite Corpse popularized by one of my foremost influences, the Surrealists, during the height of their 20th century artistic movement.