My painting “Pariah” was an experiment in contrasts between the extremes of shocking subject matter and uplifting emotions, between surface appearance and underlying symbolism. It evolved out of an intriguing and unusual backstory, and I think anyone wishing to understand the painting on a deeper level than the initial shock value that its grotesque subject might offer could benefit from knowing the story. As an artist, I like to learn everything I can about a piece of art that interests me, in order to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for it. But if you like to interpret art completely from your own imagination, without the influence of explanations, this essay will definitely be a spoiler.
I completed this painting in late 2013 after forming its concept over the previous year of working on my Apostasy series. For that original group of 10 paintings my primary source material and visual reference was a batch of surgery photos “smuggled” to me by a nurse friend who happened to assist on a highly publicized procedure performed by a world-renowned pediatric surgeon in Los Angeles.
The surgery in question was the removal of a parasitic twin body–a set of legs and arms with a partial torso of their own but no head or brain–from a young Asian boy. This risky procedure also happened to be the subject of a documentary produced by The Learning Channel about rare cases of conjoined twins. As my friend explained to me afterwards, “there were cameras everywhere,” and so many unnecessary people in the operating room that it felt like a party, not a surgery. So, she figured, as long as I didn’t depict any precise likenesses while altering and cropping the source photos to fit my artistic needs, it should be okay for me to use them.
Little did I know, the day I first saw those photos sometime in 2011 would start a still unfolding artistic evolution, in which “Pariah” is but one chapter. I’d seen plenty of photos like those before, had often used visceral flesh and blood imagery in my work, being strangely attracted to the aesthetic of their glossy surfaces, warm colors and the soft organic patterns of flesh and body tissue. But never had I as close an encounter with the source of the imagery, nor had I seen photos of anything quite like the incredibly unique and rare procedure of separating two tiny conjoined bodies.
I stashed those photos for many months, looking at them occasionally while ruminating on the themes of life and loss, health and sickness, fragility and brutality that they suggested. It wasn’t until some health struggles of my own necessitated some frustrating forays into the modern medical system that the ideas crystalized and motivation appeared, and with a solo show at Last Rites Gallery in Manhattan approaching in the spring of 2012, I got to work.
Many of the surgery photos had an ambiguous quality that made them appear quite like mysterious snapshots of a strange and very serious, even frightening, ritual. I focused on these shots while culling down the imagery for my solo show, but never forgot one photo that was very unlike the others. Its stark brutality set it apart from those and made it too obvious for the intended ambiguity of the series, but its disorientingly grotesque beauty still haunted me, whispering a vague inspiration into my subconscious.
In this photograph, the disposed bodily artifacts from the surgery were arranged neatly like ornaments on a cloth-lined tray for scientific appreciation, in the precise locations they would have inhabited had they been the constituents of a fully formed little boy’s body. Oddly distorted in shape and size by the parasitism, the tiny limbs–two legs, two arms, a chunk of torso with bulbous intestines splayed out–looked tragically angelic, heavy with dead weight yet still full of lively color and capillary blush.
That loving commemoration of a dismemberment spoke to me more as time went on. It seemed a succinct representation of what a technological society does to its citizens, all of us in some way or another, starting at birth and continuing well into adulthood. One by one, or all at once, our wild traits, impulses, and inconvenient feelings are intercepted, punished, shunned, contextualized, repressed and denied, severed and forced into an individual and collective shadow psyche. Whether done with good intentions or bad, for better or worse, the disassembling is the same. This living dissection is the process of enculturation and assimilation: the purpose of civilization.
The inescapable cultural phenomenon filters down into individual lives, in turn influencing what we do to each other in personal relationships. Friends, family, lovers alike are each cut up into traits, moods, and moments. We categorize these desirable and undesirable, rewarding the former in order to encourage more of them, punishing the latter in order to banish them from our experience. We do unto others as it’s being done to us; part instinct and part conditioning. We end up severed, ashamed of some parts of ourselves while clinging to others. And so most of us grow up with fragmented psyches craving wholeness, wanting instinctively to be put back together again in the compassionate embrace of person and deity alike.
How fitting, then, to use that image for a painting honoring the pariahs in our world, and in ourselves. I wanted to create a visual wish that those who’ve been eclipsed could wear that crescent ring of light as a halo. That the broken could be seen as beautiful in their imperfection. That the cast out, the unloved and unwanted, could all have their day of acceptance.
I like to paint what many people would deem ugly and shocking things because I believe the grotesque needs to be fully accepted, and even seen as beautiful, in order for inward and outward progression to occur. I believe that each and every aspect of reality has its own intrinsic value while also being a necessary part of a complete whole.
Although not obvious to anyone seeing the work, in “Pariah” I enjoy the contradiction between its subject matter and the feeling I had while painting it. In other words, the unity of dark and light that resulted from painting a child’s severed body parts while meditating on compassion and love. Like the unification of all dichotomies, I believe the intersection of brutality and empathy is a fruitful place. I wanted this painting to be my document of that, and, once the backstory is understood, a map of sorts for getting there.