Visceralia

Art as direct soul-to-soul communication.

Fernando Vicente “Vanitas” (2008)

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“For a long time, the inside of the human body has been reserved for the exclusive use of medicine and science. It is time to claim it for our own contemplation.”

Thus does Fernando Vicente summarize the concept behind his Vanitas series, an introspective modern take on the recurrent theme of vanity in the history of painting, where the icon-making fashion machine fails to immortalize its hepburnesque subjects. His models, oblivious to their own exposure, tantalisingly reveal muscles, tendons, viscera and bones, presenting us with a difficult yet disturbingly enticing experience.

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Rather than skin deep, the anatomical sections seem superimposed on the figures in the manner of jewelry or tattoos, transforming body parts into statement fashion accessories, their red, pink and yellow palettes starkly contrasting with the demure poise of the models and sober background. Their message, simple yet crushing, reminds us that despite the layers of sophistication that affluence and class afford, we are all flesh and bone underneath. Moreover, it proposes a most exuberant and interesting kind of beauty residing beneath all artifice, away from imposed aesthetic canons.

By offering glimpses of the complex inner reality of the female body, Vicente incisively comments on fashion’s zeal for its objectification and containment, which presents a deceptively sophisticated version of womanhood, sanitized, depthless, purely ornamental. Although vulnerably exposed to the prying eye,  these twentieth century anatomical venuses comply with nothing of the sort, they are raw, unpleasantly explicit, almost obscenely dissected to expose, by virtue of contrasts, their own multifaceted complexity.

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Most accordingly, the artist’s selection of 1950′s conservative tailoring and noir siren looks further expands on characterisation, theatricality and restraint, essential traits in the fashion world, where women are paradoxically allowed to express their “individuality” and coaxed to do so within a highly regimented  yet flamboyantly creative framework. The result being an eerie homogeneity, where all women become mirror images of one another by striving for authenticity behind an elaborate smokescreen.

On the contrary, Vicente’s women acquire depth and individuality through undressing their inner yearnings, which exposed entrails embody:  consuming passion, motherhood, sensuality, deep reflection. His scalpel-sharp pen exquisitely captures the intricacy of medical art, masterfully grafted on to film and fashion photography to produce a startlingly exciting hybrid specimen of  beauty, paradoxically delicate and brutal, flirtatiously daring and stunningly honest.

Equally captivating are his Anatomías and Venus  series, the first being  an exploration of the body as machine and the second a reinterpretation of classical feminine beauty in a contemporary alternative framework.

Jan Fabre “Pietas” (2011)

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“I’m a contemporary mystic” chuckles Jan Fabre at the end of this artnet interview and, in view of his work above, one has no choice but to revere and agree.

Pietas has been termed a contemporary reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s original where the artist creates a dialogue between art, metaphysics and science. This dialogue is timeless and universal, yet nonetheless poignantly relevant to our times. The global crisis has not only spurred an overall questioning of the predominant lef-brain lateralisation of western culture, but also of consciousness and of  the individual’s place in the world. Beholding the mess we are in, financial, social and ecological catastrophes highlighting the fragile basis of our existence, it is only natural to suspend our skepticism and keep seeking a spiritual answer, for in our hopelessness it seems only a miracle can save us. Yet, in the information era, we are not in the dark as to the origin of world problems and how, and if, we can solve them. We have the technology, the science and the resources to make a difference. Our brains have made us godlike, yet we need art to remind us of what is obvious to both science and religion, that we are inexorably linked to the natural cycle of death and decay.

Death is indeed a key concept in this work,  as “Fabre insists that Pietas should be interpreted as a ‘performance sculpture’ that encapsulates maternal bereavement and captures the futile longing of a mother to take the place of her dying son.”  However, the stern material solidity of marble, the exquisite anatomical accuracy of its models, and the presence of flora and insect motifs make it as well a celebration of the very vitality present at the moment of decay. Death takes centre place as the quintessential mother figure (Mary/Nature), who brings forth the possibility of metamorphoses and continuation.

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This is  doubtlessly a controversial notion for some and, like all good art, Pietas caused a scandal when it was first exhibited at the Nuova Scuola Grande di  Santa Maria della Misericordia in Venice for its perceived blasphemous content. The site, a deconsecrated 16th century church transformed into “an academy of thinking” mesmerized Fabre, who “knew this was the right place to exhibit my work! Here, art science and spirituality meet and blend.”

The brain emerges here as a symbol of empathy for the artist,  in Fabre’s own words “[Italian Scientist Giacomo] Rizzolati has proven that empathy is a feeling that doesn’t come from the heart, but comes directly from the brain and is registered in our neurons,”. Changing their shoes for felt slippers, visitors walk over an otherworldly scenario covered in 24 carat gold leaf in a solemn and theatrical pilgrimage that takes them from the central brain posts (Pietas I, II, III, IV), to the principal piece Merciful Dream (Pietas V) where the artist lies dead in place of Christ in the lap of Death/Mary. This way the artist invites us to interact with the sculptures and through reference to the senses (spider, roses) question our ephemeral experience of the world, as well as our attempts at transcendence through religion (the crosses of nails and roses stand for Christianism, the bonsai for Japanese Shintoism, the turtle for Chinese, Indian and ancient Greek belief systems), while hopefully coming to terms at the end with our unavoidable mortality (vanitas).

Pietas masterfully and poetically shapes the artists’ deeply personal inner world, articulating a complex and obscure mythology pregnant with references to resurrection, transformation and eternal life. This takes most significant shape in the butterfly perched at the artist’s face, and in the green amulets hanging around the sculptures covered in buprestids (jewell-scarab wing cases), a signature material reminiscent of Egyptian art, with which he also covered the Hall of Mirrors in the Royal Palace in Brussels in his work below entitled Heaven of Delight (2002).

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Despite its apparent focus on mortality and human ephemera, Pietas is a monumental masterpiece intended, like those of the old masters, to endure and perdure. In the artist’s own words:

“I love the durability of things. I create for the future. I believe that my work contains many riddles and layers, which will reveal themselves more clearly to the beholder in, say, 50 or 100 years. Only then will my work be better understood. I find it such a beautiful thought: we live in a society where no one is concerned with durability, while artists are precisely engaged with issues of durability. Durability is a rather old-fashioned concept. You are no longer allowed to believe that your work will have value in, say, 100 years. I believe, on the contrary, that its significance will increase. I would stop making art if I believed that my work could hold no future meaning.”

It is fair to conclude that, as much as western secular society aims to disentangle itself from religious morality and subsequent censorship, the fact that Fabre’s work is still perceived as scandalous means that we are far removed from aseptic curiosity when it comes to our relationship with spirituality. Although the insistence of imposed religious views to obscure or repress our hunger for knowledge, for experience of the world, for enquiry and reinterpretation through a variety of means is truly sad; a yearning for an afterlife, for a notion of permanence to hold on to is a healthy and dignified symptom of the human malady. My proposal here is that art fills that void in representing that very yearning, and in fixing it for posterity,like Fabre does, we find unshakable hope for generations to come.

Juan Gatti “De Ciencias Naturales” (2012)

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De Ciencias Naturales (The Natural Sciences)  is the first exhibition of a personal work by Argentinian-born visual artist, designer and art director Juan Gatti, its germ and starting point being a commission by Pedro Almodovar of a series of images for the ambientation of his 2011 film The Skin I Live In. With this series, the artist:

“Reclaims his own principles present in his whole body of work: a clear sense of beauty alien to any tendencies or imperant fashions, respect and use of the different aesthetics accumulated in our cultural baggage and construction of a particular world in which the essential is the communicative sense that every work of art, fitted or not to a purpose, must always possess.” Puntafina News

The most captivating feature of this work is precisely the skillful combination of two nineteenth century obsessions: anatomy and the taxonomy of plants. The remarkable preciosism in scientific illustrations of the period producing works of astonishing beauty, in spite of an overbearing sense of foreboding: the inevitable mortality of the flesh.

Here, open bodies stripped of their skin parade lush and vibrant viscera, their shapes and colouring mimicking the surrounding flora and fauna. A strangely paradisiacal landscape of fluidity and oneness between the human, animal and vegetable reigns.

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The soul is also present, in the butterfly wings traditionally linked with death and resurrection in the higher spiritual realm. The body is, once the constraints of physicality (skin/chrysalid) are abandoned, in permanent communication with its essence as both of the earth and divine. Indeed, the closed eyes in the corpse-like figures speak of an experience of the beyond,  that which exists removed from our physical perception of life through the senses and in communion with dreams and death.

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Quartered bodies seem to rejoice at their imminent disintegration and embrace their disappearance,  their lattice-work outlines barely encaging unstoppable nature and its cycle of decay, death and rebirth. There is no separation present, as every twig and vein entwine into a network of life, permanently connected and in constant, fluid “dialogue”.

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The greatest success in De Ciencias Naturales, is this highly original and thoroughly modern reinterpretation of old themes, symbols and motifs in an exuberant landscape wildly referencing art history from Hieronymus Bosch to Salvador Dali. It is hallucinatory, yet serene, unsettling yet joyous, playfully inviting us to partake of this exquisite danse macabre in our own unique way.

To enhance the experience of Gatti’s work, listen to Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack to The Skin I live In.

Beau Stanton “Arcane Archetypes” (2013)

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Arcane Archetypes opened in June this year at Last Rites Gallery in New York presenting Beau Stanton’s first solo exhibition inspired by the Major Arcana of the Tarot. According to his website:

“Stanton’s paintings connect old world traditions and visuals with modern technology and ideals to communicate universal tenets. Arcane Archetypes integrates Stanton’s quintessential images and pervading themes in his usual fanfare of color and filigree to interpret the esoteric nature of the Tarot. Conducive to his process of layering oil paint with ornate silkscreen compositions, this body of work offers an examination of the mystical layers that forms the principles of the Tarot and its divine and practical application throughout history. Embarking on the age-old tradition of the Tarot allows for a reinterpretation of a timeless study while adapting its essence to reevaluate its concurrency with both the individual and the evolution of man.” 

However, the feature most in-keeping both with the essence of the Tarot and with the spirit of this blog is the artist’s own statement recognizing that his intention in creating these images is to “instill a lasting imprint into the viewer’s subconscious.”

As an experienced tarot reader, I have recognized in the symbolism of a variety of decks an aim to trigger a response from the reader’s subconscious, a sort of awakening of mind and soul regaining access to information previously hidden from “view”. This communication between eyes, mind and soul is the very essence of the aesthetic experience, as one neither intended for mere visual contemplation, nor necessarily subject to intellectual interpretation, but a cathartic response, a surrendering to, and communion with the collective subconscious.

Stanton defines his paintings as “extremely dense communicative devices”, and rightly so, not only due to the esoteric nature of its imagery, rich in symbolic depth of interpretation, but also thanks to his multilayered blending of the ancient with the modern. His High Priestess, unlike the Madonna-like figure in the Rider Waite deck, tantalizingly reveals a glimpse of female flesh, the (biblical) knowledge of which has been historically linked in popular folklore to the condemnation of curiosity and the dangers of surrendering to the unknown. The veiled woman here does not represent, like the Madonna does, the traditional ideal of chaste purity, and while the exposed breast echoes nurturing and motherhood, her attire hints at erotic consummation of a dangerous kind (BDSM).

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This is most faithful to the energy of the High Priestess card, which represents the quintessential femme fatale in her empowered self-knowledge, as empowering indeed is her dominatrix stance here. While her hand unveils the forbidden (her naked body) her covered face, seemingly impassible, beckons “approach at your own peril”. Beneath the waning crescent moon, a period in which according to Pagan tradition “what work has been done is now gathered in and the crop offered as a sacrifice to the Mother who gave it to us in the first place”, she becomes an Earth Mother such as “Demeter, Ceres, Korte, Danu (Anu), and Bast”, imbued with a creative/destructive ambivalence that, although designed to perpetuate the life-cycle, is nonetheless terrifying.

The keys above her  symbolize power, taking us back to the idea of “unlocking” hidden knowledge, thus allowing the influx of information from ethereal realms into physical reality. Not for nothing, “the period of the waning Moon deals with subconscious enlightenment leading to the clarification of conscious values”. This is essential to understand the power of imagery and art itself, not as a study subject, an instrument of indoctrination into any given idiosyncrasy, but as a vehicle for communication between the subconscious and the conscious, the artist and the viewer, the eye and the soul.

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This idea pervades Stanton’s striking reinterpretation of the Major Arcana for today’s audience. Merging high-definition visual effects, a vibrant palette, elaborate silkscreen compositions, light and shadow play, with elements of the ancient and sacred as well as references to modern surrealism, he successfully presents these century old archetypes in a contemporary way, their psychedelic brightness lightening the path for the uninitiated.

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