Friday, January 25, 2008

Death's Head

Review - "Skull Fuck 2" at East Side Lounge
Fly Away by Charlie Owens)

Saturday night. As a rare Atlanta snow melted into oblivion over Flat Shoals Ave, I ducked into the East Side Lounge. The title of the night’s art show is "Skull Fuck 2." I expected the worst, already my mind’s eye recalling the bad horror movies of yesteryear. "Ah," I thought to myself, "yet another crawl through some dark alley of Atlanta Lowbrow."

Sure enough, the narrow bar was transformed into a bazaar of skull-themed paintings. Skull mirrors, skulls with chicks, and skulls patterned in tan and magenta, à la Warhol's Marylyn Monroe. But it wasn't quite the dive bar I had expected. Just a little on the posh side, the place was surprisingly bright; at least you could see the paintings over and between the heads of late night regulars.

Executed in his usual style, Charlie Owens’ entries dominated the first floor. Although there’s nothing particularly new about Fly Away (above), the aggressive colors and smooth finish stood out from the crowd. The lines on Charlie’s cartoon ghosts, part flesh but mostly bone, are whimsical yet confidant. What really electrifies this painting, though, is the intricate layering of elements, ephemeral butterflies dancing over interlocking fleur de li. I couldn’t stop staring at those blues and cloudbursts of gold dust.

Yet as I nudged through crowded elbows and dangling handbags, I felt a lingering déjà vu. Yes, there is something universal about skull pictures: most every boy grows up scribbling skulls or robots or medieval weapons into the margins of their math homework. I admire the populism, but why is it so predictable?

Upstairs, pieces by Jonathan Callicutt caused me to take a second look. His horizontals look like banknotes1 from some unknown empire: birds of peace crossed with militaristic five-pointed stars. A message written in cursive: “Poor uneducated people will be made noble in the fire.” Although lacking the graphic punch of Charlie Owens, the collision of cryptic text and unlikely symbols approaches meaning. Something sublime lurks behind the rough, working class exterior.

It begs the question: how do you get mileage out of repetition and cliché? Skulls - a motif with such an ancient history in the medieval vanitas, Aztec rituals2, and the death’s head of the German S.S. – are more likely today to make us think of Pirates of the Caribbean. Looking at some of Jonathan’s other work, there’s something much more mysterious about his use of Michelangelo’s Pieta and statue of Moses. And those kabuki demon masks, which are said to combine a face of intense anger with one of sadness, are especially haunting.

“Skull Fuck 2” delivered what it promised, an informal tribute to the skinless human face. I was just hoping for a little more.


1It's a strange fact that some the world's first paper currency wasn't for the living. It was for the dead.
2Books by George Bataille, Erotism and The Accursed Share, have some hypnotic descriptions of death traditions in colonial Aztec culture and medieval art.

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