I was at the Art Institute a few weeks ago, and for some reason, all I saw was death.
It started with Charles Ray’s “Unpainted Sculpture.”
Dig the “Jesus is Lord” decal on the upper left (rear). I knew it was a death car as soon as we walked in the room. Why else would it be here? Thankfully, it wasn’t the actual car, and what we were seeing was an exact replica cast in fiberglass.
We walked around the car, and even though I knew I wasn’t looking at anything “real,” I still felt really screwed up about it. It was an exhibit, and it was put here to be observed and talked about, but it feels sort of wrong to talk about. Yet here I am. I don’t know who the driver was. It would almost make me feel better somehow to know, although I don’t know why. It wouldn’t change anything. Maybe the message is that death is faceless, nameless. A force that will one day come for each of us, and all that will be left are shells of materials around us. We won’t be here anymore.
That message taken at face value is macabre and ominous, and totally depressing. But, it doesn’t have to be. There’s no sense getting down about a fact that you are powerless to change. And in that letting go, is freedom. Besides, only empty soulless people even believe in death. It is a change in circumstance, to be sure. But it isn’t real, you know.
The artist could not be reached for comment, but the placard on the wall said: “After studying automobiles that had been involved in fatal collisions, Ray eventually chose a wrecked 1991 Pontiac Grand Am that he felt held the presence of its dead driver.” Is there a ghost in the machine? I don’t know, but I’m sure it happens. The scene was uncomfortable, as though I was having a glimpse of something private, something that no other human being was meant to see.
“Unpainted Sculpture” was not a permanent exhibit, but the remaining images that continue to haunt me are.
Frances Bacon’s “Figure with Meat,” 1954
No further explanation is needed. This is very similar to the first Bacon painting I saw (in Des Moines, of all places). The guy made Halloween art, plain and simple. It looks like something that should be hanging on the wall of a haunted attraction. How he ever got himself into museums, I will never know. This fact proves that many artists are famous for shocking the conscience rather than for creating anything of substance beyond the shock.
Kurt Seligmann’s “Magnetic Mountain,” – 1948
Fascinating, but totally weird. Interesting factoid – Seligmann authored a history book about the occult (The Mirror of Magic), and was readily acknowledged by the Surrealists as an expert magician. I’m going to steal a phrase from Bob. When we were out in Bisbee, Arizona, he called that town Beetlejuice on Drugs. That’s what I call this painting. I’m not saying it isn’t interesting or thought-provoking, but it creeps me the hell out.
Yve Tanguy’s “The Rapidity of Sleep,” – 1945
Does it mean you have slipped away into Freddy Krueger’s Dream Land, or that you are dead, sleeping the ultimate sleep?
Salvador Dali’s “Inventions of the Monsters,” – 1937
You can always count on Dali to put together something that will totally rock what you think the world is. He tapped into his dreams, churled them around, and came up with his image of a world without a safe haven. What I want to know is – was he actually the great prophet of the modern age?
Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Philosopher’s Conquest,” – late 1913, early 1914
This one is less obviously macabre, but macabre it is in fact, still. I saw his “Gare Montparnasse” painting at the MOMA last year, and was blown away. The artichokes are nutty, but he has the clock and the train again, which we know are symbols of death.
Rene Magrite’s “The Banquet,” – 1958
I love this one. Although, the more I look at it, the more convinced I become that I am standing inside the painting. The scene is a crumbling European castle full of royal vampires, and they have just arisen from their coffins because the sun is now setting. They’re coming to get you, Barbara. Wait! That line is for when the zombies are coming, not the vampires.
Sweet dreams. Happy early Halloween!