The Drawers - The Dark Side and Snow Commentary by Julie Oakes

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Exhibition Photos - 2009, Headbones Gallery

 The Dark Side and Snow 

On the winter solstice when the day is the darkest, the mind can follow suit and then the transition begins to happen. Having worked through the darkness, the light begins to dawn and hope is renewed. But it is only through the perception of the dark and the relative coming to the light that the epiphany can occur.

Both philosophy and religion has acknowledged the dark side. In some instances the dark side is associated with evil as in the Christian hell of fire and brimstone. The religions that recognise the existence of destruction as a part of the cycle of life incorporate maleficent deities (such as the Buddhist Mahakala) as protectors of the good or avengers of the righteous. The life giving properties of the sun and light exist both metaphorically and allegorically in most religions, with the ways of acknowledging these forces taken to greater or lesser fundamental extremes.

Philosophers as well have pondered the effects of darkness, working the acknowledgement of the dark force into holistic recognition or as with the more radical philosophers such as Machiavelli, Heidegger, Nietzsche, or Foucault; building a case for the necessity of knowing The Dark One in order to attain a realistic perception of life.

The modern dilemma has created a new range of dark sides and Headbones Gallery is exploring just a few. And in order to justify and balance the lessening of the light, it has also brought forth a curatorial analogy to the winter existence we know in Canada. Snow is offered as a contrast for the dark; snow with the capacity to reflect the light from a darkened sky. Nancy E. Watt's Snow Prints with their recognisable winter subject matter–the shape of snowshoes, the impressions of birds' feet in snow, the wide arcs of plough prints or pathways, refresh the white walls where black currently blooms. Watt's practice, based in abstraction, brings forth pristine configurations derived from the natural world and transforms them into formalist stylised minimalism. With Bauhaus concentration of imagery into the smallest possible amount of variables, the essence of snow yielding to the marks of the animal world is a reminder of the varying ecological footprints upon the earth. The bare feet of the bird stands in contrast to the snowshoes upon which man spreads his weight or the even heavier pathways pressed into the soft pliable snow by industrialisation. 

Large cut paper silhouettes by Jack Butler loom large. Grace Jones leans forward with her eyes looking back, the white cut-outs perfectly defining her glance. The surface is a patch work of rusty images on black Japanese paper. The image, super-sized but with the intrinsic fragility of paper is surprisingly durable, pinned to the wall with silver pins like the no-longer-fluttering wings of a dead butterfly. That Grace Jones, whose blue-black, unisex image became as famous as her vocals, should reign in splendour on the walls of Headbones Gallery during the inauguration of the first black American president, is a poignant example of art's piercing prescience.

Paris Haircut, struts dark humour with eyes and mouth cut from the hair on the back of a male head like a second bristly visage dramatically poised as resilient as hip-ness. The image was originally a by-product of the beauty business. Butler has creatively elevated the commercial advertisement with a new and impressive magnitude that manages to still retain a lacy and airy quality as the white wall is seen through the snippets.

Butler has a history of exploration in the nether realms. His imaging of the development of sex in the embryological and fetal stages broke ground for medicine and science as he made visual the growth of genitalia, hitherto unseen. The initial identification as to male or female was found to be not as black and white as it was believed to be. By shining the light of seeing upon the dark and undiscovered, he advanced man's knowledge of his humanity. He has also known the dark side in his forays into the land of the midnight sun. One of the pioneers for the advancement of the awareness of Inuit art, he has furthered the flowering of the art of indigenous peoples.

From dark matt shadow boxes, suspended by surgical clips, chains, pins and needles, Scott Jensen's sensitive graphite drawings bring a Goth flavour of celebrated horror. Skulls, gnashing teeth, guns, knives, razor blades and bullets tell smudgy stories of dungeons and punishments. Jensen has tales to tell, having lived through a shooting and a car accident where he was run over and then flung over a meridian and hit by a second car coming from the opposite direction. He has a bouncer's memories of evening evictions and in stature and style, he cuts a formidable biker-like presence with a hand so soft, rendering so delicate, attention to the small so loving, that the cutting edge is felt personally, as keen as a slice.

The new romantics have a presence with works by Angela Grossmann and Attila Richard Lukacs. From the languishing angst of a Goethian passion, the romantic willingness to suffer for love, for sensation, or just out of morbid curiosity is evoked within their masterful styles. Marcus Leatherdale's photograph of a tattooed  male shunning the penetration of the camera's eye or the drawings by Tom of Finland, call up countercultures where black leather and ink often decorate the denizens of the dark realms. From the collection of Patric Lehmann, they encapsulate a trend towards the dark side that are an acknowledged part of artistic counter cultures.

With the dark simplicity of graphite where the eraser has cast a glow of unearthly significance on the scene, Daphne Gerou's implied narratives bridge the genres of fantasy and reality. The dark depictions make a quantum leap from cute to ominous. The uniformed bunnies' passive expressions, their lack of identifiable differences, their cool personalities (or are they only timid?)  set up a dynamic of menace. It is not the seething rage of horror about to pounce, but an insidious suspicion of the irrevocably unjust situation that the less demonstrative species are caught in by virtue of modernity and industrialization.

There is not hopelessness in the vista, however. The bunnies are outfitted and, naturally silent, they appear organized in their bid to adjust their dilemma. The bunnies are on the move.They are leaving in the dead of night like refugees exiting an occupied zone. They are navigating by signs that are foreign to their habitual naturalism. The bunnies are glowing in the dark as if they had eaten radioactive fodder. Uniformed, armed and signalling to far distant bunnies, they are migrating strategically. The bunnies have apparently discovered something that mankind hasn't quite grasped yet - that there is an imbalance - “the time is out of joint”.

The advocate for acknowledging the dark side, Daniel Erban, perpetuates images of horror in simple primitive imaginings, almost as if they were done by a child which makes the horror more horrific and signifies intent. If the intent is to shock, it doesn't always work for often the response to Daniel Erban's work is a reactionary identification with it, an exclamatory response that has an affirmative rather than a negative reaction - perhaps because the resulting pieces are stunning.  Tutored to accept our dark side from the time of Freud onwards, a mature acceptance of negative imaging is almost common place from the perspective of an educated viewer. It's hard to shock in the light of media coverage. A regal depiction of horror, in fact, becomes attractive and the need to act out horror is nullified by the satisfaction of understanding it and with discretionary caution, embracing it. Acceptance of the dark side through visual knowledge allows the opportunity to vicariously purge any notions of violence and disgust.  Daniel Erban's work is morally responsible work. It accepts the sorry condition of aborted philosophies and like the needles poked in a voodoo doll, the substitute effigy suffices to pierce the heart of the contemporary conscience.

Erban's use of abstraction helps to distance for the immediate impression almost misses the subject. This is the 'stunning' aspect.  Although the stark, bold, graphic depictions of severing, hanging, vomiting, and obliterating brutality is unavoidably understood, there is a security in the position of the viewer for witnessing is not participating in the violence. Or is it? By accepting Daniel Erban's work, is the horror being endorsed? No, absolutely no! The shameful truth of a mitigated existence is further understood and by acknowledging the crass it looses power. The evil is not allowed to creep up and catch, unawares, a blithe compatriot. Instead the common passion for art ignites compassion, empathy and recognition that this twisted depiction of existence resonates and rings, sadly, true. The work is blatantly honest.

Letting out the psychological stops to slash, rip, and seemingly torture with a heavy black line on blood red paper, Erban's work is simultaneously disturbing and thrilling. He has committed strange and horrid thoughts to paper. He has raised the primal fear of unleashed violence like an unavoidable predator stalking a dream and creating the spectres of nightmares.

John Farrugia stakes an absolute claim on death and the dark side with his skeletons. Fully present and impervious to change other than patina discoloration, Farrugia has committed the symbol of decomposition to bronze. We are all destined to eventually return to dust, but not so Farrugia's pieces. They will remain in state long after the artist's physical body has fallen and so he has invoked a challenge to mortality. His work will outlive him although imbued with the ominous message of death. The size, easily captured by the gaze, enables the contemplation of the impermanence of life and the ultimate eminence of the dark unknown death.  Crusty and yet endearingly individual, the skeletons, through their gestures, tell the stories of humans stripped of pretence, circumstance, clothes, features and defining flesh. The narrative is derived from religious themes or Arthurian legend. The sculptural depiction of the iconic struggles for position, immortality and Godliness strikes new chords with the symphonic realisation of the inevitable dance with death, the one name on the dance card that cannot be erased.

The overriding impression of The Dark Side and Snow is not depressing, oddly enough, but energising. The work is strong, confident and assured and in the presence of firm statements, creatively realised and technically accomplished, the reaction falls in line with the response to good art under any title.  The Dark Side and Snow moves the viewer closer to the light of a greater understanding of art, life and the nourishing aspects of culture.

Copyright © 2009,  Julie Oakes