The Unknown

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on June 30, 2011

Recently I decided to paint and draw the skull as an extension of my desire to use meaningless or incidental subjects in my work. My reasoning was that the skull is so iconic, so heavily used, and so pervasive in modern and contemporary art and culture that it no longer holds any individual or unique meaning for the viewer or artist. It is so heavily loaded with meaning and symbolism that I felt it had become kitsch and overloaded, reaching a point of saturation rendering it effectively meaningless.

Coincidentally I have recently been reading Art and Death by Chris Townsend.  What I have found most interesting about this is not the symbolic significance of the skull but the similarities between my approach to subject matter in general and some of the theories on other artists’ approach to the subject of death. I have written before about the difficulties I have in choosing subjects and communicating in general and believe that there are parallels in the ways I am struggling with representation and the ways in which others engage with representing death.

In Art and Death it is suggested that death is unknowable as it can never be experienced directly, only witnessed. Because death is unknowable it is therefore impossible to represent. So all attempts of representations of death are in fact representations of the elements surrounding death; grief, loss, physical absence or decay et cetera. Going by this theory the concept of death is then communicated not directly, but through absence; by describing all that surrounds it.

What surprises me is how effective this means of communication is. Perhaps because death is as unfamiliar to the viewer as the artist it is the absence of understanding that is being communicated. Because both parties can identify the peripherals of death a common experience and language can be drawn on to engage on a subject that neither party can know directly.

I feel that this means of representation and communication, talking about everything except for the subject, is analogous to my means of communication in regards to other subjects. I often feel it is impossible to know or truly represent the subject, and that any representation will address the peripheral more directly than the subject itself and that the act of communication itself outweighs the content.

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