Even before it became the signature motif for the much-lamented Ed Hardy clothing line, the skull has been an iconic (and way overused) symbol permeating contemporary fashion, jewelry tattoos and rock posters. Playing with it in art today can dent a career, unless, of course, the artist is a Damien Hirst or Gerhard Richter type. And like predictable beach paintings in coastal towns, a skull-themed show can be a cliché serious curators try to avoid, despite the quality of artists involved.
But not Chris Bauder, who takes on the theme for a second time with his Skull Show Biennial at the CSN gallery, featuring 30 artists working in varying media and styles.
Before trepidation sets in, know that works in the Bauder-curated show prove artists can rise above (and even work with) the contemporary populism of the skull motif to create art that delves into perceptions of death in an interesting way not overridden by teenage cliché.
- The Skull Show Biennial, 2013
For example, in Sean Russell’s “233” the artist used lead to create a trio of skulls blown open by gunshot wounds. Making the skulls of bullet material and marking them with a “2, 2 and 3” creates an inevitable and violent fate in the link between life and death.
Joseph Shore’s lithograph “Still #1 (Dublin)” presents an inviting and more contemporary take on the traditional still life with a composition of saturated colors, steak, sardines, a human skull and beer, linking death with the finer things in life.
Pete Froslie’s “One-eyed Willy” is an eerily fascinating and playful kinetic sculpture that provides a digital soundtrack, akin to old-school video games, audible throughout the gallery. And then there’s Bauder’s own latex paint sculpture “Intergalactic Prophylactic Merchandiser,” a rubbery-looking fetish machine burping out death and body parts.
Anchoring it all sentimentally is Ahren Hertel’s “Hallow Ground,” a somewhat somber oil-on-canvas realist painting of a stoic young woman in a winter coat on a chilly day in the West, holding a deer skull and antlers. Delicate blue butterflies hint at the cycle of life.
Like the other artists, Hertel uses his medium to take on the subject in humorous, thoughtful or poignant ways.