Ozymandias …. by Zen Pencils

On May 26, 2015 Bear Skin posted a blog about Percy Shelley’s classic poem from 1818,  “Ozymandias.” The poem captures beautifully the Romantic notion of transience and decay of what was once proud and beautiful.

Having recently liked the sublime page Zen Pencils, an illustrative blog of all things inspirational, I came across this version of an illustrated Ozymandias.

It’s too good not to share. Enjoy!



Wild at Art

It’s with pleasure we introduce another guest blog by regular Bear Skin contributor Damien Shalley:

Damien Shalley” TM is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ultra-Precision Heavy Manufacturing Concern, Fukuoka, Japan.  He owns a secret stash of the discontinued cologne “High Karate” and its successor fragrance, “Mucho Macho”.  He would like to test the legal limits of the theory that all men are created equal, especially when he’s wearing his cologne. Damien Shalley is not “feeling the Bern”, but does sometimes experience a mild rash.  If he owned a sinister cat, he’d call it Chairman Meow.


Wild at Art – Visual Artist Gottfried Helnwein

by D. Shalley

(Thanks to Coco)

Vienna, Austria: one-time epicentre of European high culture, birthplace of psychoanalysis, safe ground for Nazis during the Second World War.  This unique milieu created (and continues to create) a distinct sensibility within the Austrian national character.  Less precise than the Germans, more artful than the Swiss, highly aware of the past yet forthright defenders of their independent future, Austria today is a wealthy nation with an important role in the modern European Union.  Yet students of history who visit the country often describe it as eerie – almost like a historical haunted house – a physical representation of the darkness at the heart of the human condition.  Visitors can feel the ghosts of “old Europe” roaming.  They are present in the architecture, in the monuments, in the confronting history.  And from such frighteningly fertile ground, great art grows.

 01. Sara_by_gottfriedhelnwein

Gottfried Helnwein is Austria’s most successful modern art identity and a major celebrity on the global art stage.  He has been described as the artistic manifestation of Austria’s post-World War Two social anxiety, confronting hidden guilt and exposing it to unflatteringly bright daylight.  He involves himself in many different forms of visual art; oil and watercolour paintings (including portraiture and landscapes), drawings, photography, installations, and even theatre and film.  He is noted for his photo-realistic oil paintings, as well as his expressionist pieces using acrylic and ink.  He became well-known for photographic prints featuring celebrity subjects and is regarded as a stylistic influence on modern rock video imagery.  The predominant theme of his work is the intersection of purity and corruption, where goodness and guiltlessness are confronted or co-opted by an often disguised evil.  A signature theme of his work is the approach of malevolence towards an unknowing child – innocence meets the armband.

 02. GH

 03. child_of_light_by_gottfriedhelnwein


Much has been made of the fact that Helnwein grew up in post-World War 2 Vienna, in a German-speaking country that collaborated with the Nazis and witnessed terrible atrocities.  He acts as a tour guide through realms of unnecessary human sadness and also chronicles how easily beauty can be destroyed.  He is a perceptive documentarian, contrasting the banality of evil with the innate beauty of goodness.   This beauty is easily damaged, often severely, but it retains unmistakable nobility.  A pre-eminent motif is his use of stylised military looks and the sense of authority these impart.  He leaves viewers to determine for themselves the moral implications of the imagery.

 04. Gott

 05. helnwein_girl1


Many of Helnwein’s painted works are unusual in that they feature a photo-realistic style most identified with classical art, a style that fell away almost completely in the modern era.   After the invention of the camera, artists chose not to depict (this task was now redundant), but rather to express.  Techniques other than direct, naturalistic representations of a subject were favoured.  As such, a new art movement was born – “Expressionism.”  Helnwein, however, manages to straddle both worlds comfortably.  His striking “classical” representations, particularly of children’s faces, are noteworthy because they are uncommon.  The seldom-seen becomes the cause célèbre.   And yet he also freely creates expressionist works, typically mixed media pieces on canvas using acrylic and ink. (Ironically, he often also uses a camera for this purpose).  Helnwein is so proficient in this style that he was once described as the heir to throne of European expressionism.   Either way, he is capable of delivering a jolt to audiences – sometimes one of joy at beauty, sometimes one of shuddering recognition that innocence is always at risk of predation and that evil can appear before us in disguised forms.


 07.helnwein expressionism



One of Helnwein’s most famous and evocative works is “Epiphany 1 – Adoration of the Magi”.  (This is one of three “Epiphany” works, but it is the most well-known).   It is an astoundingly beautiful and simultaneously chilling work, overtly referencing famous German and Dutch nativity scenes.  However in Helnweins’s painting, the baby Jesus is not being offered tributes by wise Magi.  Instead, he is surrounded by S.S. officers (the Waffen S.S. operated in Austria to horrifying effect).  The infant they admire is a strong-willed child, alert and knowing.  Mary is depicted as an idealised Aryan, a perfect Germanic female.  The child is standing, his pose is determined.  The officers offer him adulation – the Reich has its’ Fuhrer.  The piece was instantly controversial due to a misguided belief that it represented a tribute to Nazi ideals, whereas it was actually an attempt to skewer such ideology.  The Simon Wiesenthal centre praised the work.


“Epiphany I – Adoration of the Magi”


“Epiphany III – Presentation in the Temple” is more obvious but equally sinister.  The “Epiphany” pieces were created between 1996 and 1998 and obliquely represent a repudiation of Nazi ideology.


Helnwein’s eerie “Mickey”, a gigantic portrait of the Disney mouse, is one of his signature pieces.  It puts a subtly disturbing spin on an iconic character.  This is Mickey as a symbol of “corporate paedophilia”, an antiseptically clean yet totally duplicitous creation.  This Mickey consumes your childhood and infects your future.  Mickey is depicted in greyscale, perhaps in the way an adult might perceive a faded childhood memory. He is a representation of the past, of childhood innocence.   But his smile is sinister.  Helnwein’s Mickey is the representation of your “now”, the terrifying reality of your oppressive adulthood and your eventual extinction.  Helnwein’s work reminds us that, all along, Mickey has hinted at the things to come.  We were just too consumed by his omnipresent, corporate-funded charms to pay attention.




Fascist symbols: overt and covert?



In his early career, Helnwein created a watercolour painting entitled “Peinlich”.  It depicts an innocent baby girl holding a comic book.  She is pretty and doll-like, but a horrible cut deforms her face.  It destroys her beauty and along with it, her future.  Her adulthood won’t be Disney-esque.  “Mickey” and “Peinlich” share undeniable artistic DNA.  Interestingly, it is common to hear Euro-Disney World referred to by locals as “Mouse-chwitz”.




Helnwein also exhibits fine art photography and has ventured into portraiture, working with commercial rock acts like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson.  He became so famous in his native land that he moved to Ireland in 1997 to escape public attention.  (He still lives there today with his family – in a castle no less).   Primarily a European art star, in 2004 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco opened Helnwein’s first U.S. exhibition, unsure as to the extent of his American fandom.  One hundred and thirty thousand people attended.

As part of his exhibitions, Helnwein enjoys placing his artworks in the public sphere.  He sometimes creates enormous photographic representations of his works and posts them in open spaces.  An impartial observer might concede that scale of some of this public art is truly spectacular.



Helnwein remains highly productive and his Belgrade exhibition “Between Innocence and Evil” opened in late 2015 to positive reviews and considerable attention.  He is highly regarded by many prominent artists – including creative people in fields such as film and literature – and has created a powerful global reputation that will ensure an enduring legacy.  His daughter Mercedes is also an accomplished visual artist.

Robert Flynn Johnson, curator of Helnwein’s breakout 2004 U.S. exhibition, summed up the artist by declaring that we are the subject of his art, or more precisely, the vagaries of our collective human condition. Helnwein expresses this through an avatar – the child.  According to Johnson,

 The metaphor for his art is the image of the child, but not the carefree, innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead creates profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative images of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within. [“The Child – Works by Gottfried Helnwein,” The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2004, pp 9–23].

Helnwein’s children are soulful representations of profound inconsistencies at the heart of the human condition.  Damage the children, damage the world – and the damaged world will damage the children further.  What would Sigmund Freud, Vienna’s other favourite son, have made of this?


Selected works

Between Innocence and Evil
One man exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Nov 2015 – Jan 2016

Retrospective at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, 2013

Face It The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, Lentos Museum of Modern Art, Linz, Austria, 2006

The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, 2004

Gottfried Helnwein Retrospectives

Angels Sleeping, Rudolfinum Gallery Prague,2004

Monograph, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1997

Ninth November Night
Documentary – A Commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Los Angeles, 2003

Painting in the Dark

This great video discusses the issue of creating art in a world of popularity and instant success. Who wants to make art in the dark?

The life of Vincent Van Gogh is used as a brilliant example of someone who dedicated to creating art, despite his seeming lack of success. Also titled, “The Long Game“, the video discusses the virtue of creation for its own sake.

Write on! paint on! create !

You can also view the video on Vimeo here.

Be An Artist Now

This wonderful TEDxSeoul talk [yes it’s got subtitles] reminds us of how we can over-complicate and overthink creativity.

Every child is born an artist and does not think to create for payment or accolade. We never lose this creativity but we learn to listen to the devils of doubt who would question “why” or “what for?”

But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.



[Transcript]: The theme of my talk today is, “Be an artist, right now.” Most people, when this subject is brought up, get tense and resist it: “Art doesn’t feed me, and right now I’m busy. I have to go to school, get a job, send my kids to lessons … “ You think, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for art.” There are hundreds of reasons why we can’t be artists right now. Don’t they just pop into your head?

00:39 There are so many reasons why we can’t be, indeed, we’re not sure why we should be. We don’t know why we should be artists, but we have many reasons why we can’t be. Why do people instantly resist the idea of associating themselves with art? Perhaps you think art is for the greatly gifted or for the thoroughly and professionally trained. And some of you may think you’ve strayed too far from art. Well you might have, but I don’t think so. This is the theme of my talk today. We are all born artists.


01:16 If you have kids, you know what I mean. Almost everything kids do is art. They draw with crayons on the wall. They dance to Son Dam Bi’s dance on TV, but you can’t even call it Son Dam Bi’s dance — it becomes the kids’ own dance. So they dance a strange dance and inflict their singing on everyone. Perhaps their art is something only their parents can bear, and because they practice such art all day long, people honestly get a little tired around kids.

01:51 Kids will sometimes perform monodramas — playing house is indeed a monodrama or a play. And some kids, when they get a bit older, start to lie. Usually parents remember the very first time their kid lies. They’re shocked. “Now you’re showing your true colors,” Mom says. She thinks, “Why does he take after his dad?” She questions him, “What kind of a person are you going to be?”


02:16 But you shouldn’t worry. The moment kids start to lie is the moment storytelling begins. They are talking about things they didn’t see. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful moment. Parents should celebrate. “Hurray! My boy finally started to lie!” All right! It calls for celebration. For example, a kid says, “Mom, guess what? I met an alien on my way home.” Then a typical mom responds, “Stop that nonsense.” Now, an ideal parent is someone who responds like this: “Really? An alien, huh? What did it look like? Did it say anything? Where did you meet it?” “Um, in front of the supermarket.”

02:52 When you have a conversation like this, the kid has to come up with the next thing to say to be responsible for what he started. Soon, a story develops. Of course this is an infantile story, but thinking up one sentence after the next is the same thing a professional writer like me does. In essence, they are not different. Roland Barthes once said of Flaubert’s novels, “Flaubert did not write a novel. He merely connected one sentence after another. The eros between sentences, that is the essence of Flaubert’s novel.” That’s right — a novel, basically, is writing one sentence, then, without violating the scope of the first one, writing the next sentence. And you continue to make connections.


03:40 Take a look at this sentence: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Yes, it’s the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Writing such an unjustifiable sentence and continuing in order to justify it, Kafka’s work became the masterpiece of contemporary literature. Kafka did not show his work to his father. He was not on good terms with his father. On his own, he wrote these sentences. Had he shown his father, “My boy has finally lost it,” he would’ve thought.

04:10 And that’s right. Art is about going a little nuts and justifying the next sentence, which is not much different from what a kid does. A kid who has just started to lie is taking the first step as a storyteller. Kids do art. They don’t get tired and they have fun doing it. I was in Jeju Island a few days ago. When kids are on the beach, most of them love playing in the water. But some of them spend a lot of time in the sand, making mountains and seas — well, not seas, but different things — people and dogs, etc. But parents tell them, “It will all be washed away by the waves.” In other words, it’s useless. There’s no need. But kids don’t mind. They have fun in the moment and they keep playing in the sand. Kids don’t do it because someone told them to. They aren’t told by their boss or anyone, they just do it.


05:00 When you were little, I bet you spent time enjoying the pleasure of primitive art. When I ask my students to write about their happiest moment, many write about an early artistic experience they had as a kid. Learning to play piano for the first time and playing four hands with a friend, or performing a ridiculous skit with friends looking like idiots — things like that. Or the moment you developed the first film you shot with an old camera. They talk about these kinds of experiences. You must have had such a moment. In that moment, art makes you happy because it’s not work. Work doesn’t make you happy, does it? Mostly it’s tough.

05:37 The French writer Michel Tournier has a famous saying. It’s a bit mischievous, actually. “Work is against human nature. The proof is that it makes us tired.” Right? Why would work tire us if it’s in our nature? Playing doesn’t tire us. We can play all night long. If we work overnight, we should be paid for overtime. Why? Because it’s tiring and we feel fatigue. But kids, usually they do art for fun. It’s playing. They don’t draw to sell the work to a client or play the piano to earn money for the family. Of course, there were kids who had to. You know this gentleman, right? He had to tour around Europe to support his family — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — but that was centuries ago, so we can make him an exception. Unfortunately, at some point our art — such a joyful pastime — ends. Kids have to go to lessons, to school, do homework and of course they take piano or ballet lessons, but they aren’t fun anymore. You’re told to do it and there’s competition. How can it be fun? If you’re in elementary school and you still draw on the wall, you’ll surely get in trouble with your mom. Besides, if you continue to act like an artist as you get older, you’ll increasingly feel pressure — people will question your actions and ask you to act properly.

andy warhol

07:02 Here’s my story: I was an eighth grader and I entered a drawing contest at school in Gyeongbokgung. I was trying my best, and my teacher came around and asked me, “What are you doing?” “I’m drawing diligently,” I said. “Why are you using only black?” Indeed, I was eagerly coloring the sketchbook in black. And I explained, “It’s a dark night and a crow is perching on a branch.” Then my teacher said, “Really? Well, Young-ha, you may not be good at drawing but you have a talent for storytelling.” Or so I wished. “Now you’ll get it, you rascal!” was the response. (Laughter) “You’ll get it!” he said. You were supposed to draw the palace, the Gyeonghoeru, etc., but I was coloring everything in black, so he dragged me out of the group. There were a lot of girls there as well, so I was utterly mortified.

07:51 None of my explanations or excuses were heard, and I really got it big time. If he was an ideal teacher, he would have responded like I said before, “Young-ha may not have a talent for drawing, but he has a gift for making up stories,” and he would have encouraged me. But such a teacher is seldom found. Later, I grew up and went to Europe’s galleries — I was a university student — and I thought this was really unfair. Look what I found. (Laughter)


08:23 Works like this were hung in Basel while I was punished and stood in front of the palace with my drawing in my mouth. Look at this. Doesn’t it look just like wallpaper? Contemporary art, I later discovered, isn’t explained by a lame story like mine. No crows are brought up. Most of the works have no title, Untitled. Anyways, contemporary art in the 20th century is about doing something weird and filling the void with explanation and interpretation — essentially the same as I did. Of course, my work was very amateur, but let’s turn to more famous examples.

09:01 This is Picasso’s. He stuck handlebars into a bike seat and called it “Bull’s Head.” Sounds convincing, right? Next, a urinal was placed on its side and called “Fountain”. That was Duchamp. So filling the gap between explanation and a weird act with stories — that’s indeed what contemporary art is all about. Picasso even made the statement, “I draw not what I see but what I think.” Yes, it means I didn’t have to draw Gyeonghoeru. I wish I knew what Picasso said back then. I could have argued better with my teacher. Unfortunately, the little artists within us are choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art. They get locked in. That’s our tragedy.


09:48 So what happens when little artists get locked in, banished or even killed? Our artistic desire doesn’t go away. We want to express, to reveal ourselves, but with the artist dead, the artistic desire reveals itself in dark form. In karaoke bars, there are always people who sing “She’s Gone” or “Hotel California,” miming the guitar riffs. Usually they sound awful. Awful indeed. Some people turn into rockers like this. Or some people dance in clubs. People who would have enjoyed telling stories end up trolling on the Internet all night long. That’s how a writing talent reveals itself on the dark side.

10:27 Sometimes we see dads get more excited than their kids playing with Legos or putting together plastic robots. They go, “Don’t touch it. Daddy will do it for you.” The kid has already lost interest and is doing something else, but the dad alone builds castles. This shows the artistic impulses inside us are suppressed, not gone. But they can often reveal themselves negatively, in the form of jealousy. You know the song “I would love to be on TV”? Why would we love it? TV is full of people who do what we wished to do, but never got to. They dance, they act — and the more they do, they are praised. So we start to envy them. We become dictators with a remote and start to criticize the people on TV. “He just can’t act.” “You call that singing? She can’t hit the notes.” We easily say these sorts of things. We get jealous, not because we’re evil, but because we have little artists pent up inside us. That’s what I think.


11:34 What should we do then? Yes, that’s right. Right now, we need to start our own art. Right this minute, we can turn off TV, log off the Internet, get up and start to do something. Where I teach students in drama school, there’s a course called Dramatics. In this course, all students must put on a play. However, acting majors are not supposed to act. They can write the play, for example, and the writers may work on stage art. Likewise, stage art majors may become actors, and in this way you put on a show. Students at first wonder whether they can actually do it, but later they have so much fun. I rarely see anyone who is miserable doing a play. In school, the military or even in a mental institution, once you make people do it, they enjoy it. I saw this happen in the army — many people had fun doing plays.

12:23 I have another experience: In my writing class, I give students a special assignment. I have students like you in the class — many who don’t major in writing. Some major in art or music and think they can’t write. So I give them blank sheets of paper and a theme. It can be a simple theme: Write about the most unfortunate experience in your childhood. There’s one condition: You must write like crazy. Like crazy! I walk around and encourage them, “Come on, come on!” They have to write like crazy for an hour or two. They only get to think for the first five minutes.


13:01 The reason I make them write like crazy is because when you write slowly and lots of thoughts cross your mind, the artistic devil creeps in. This devil will tell you hundreds of reasons why you can’t write: “People will laugh at you. This is not good writing! What kind of sentence is this? Look at your handwriting!” It will say a lot of things. You have to run fast so the devil can’t catch up. The really good writing I’ve seen in my class was not from the assignments with a long deadline, but from the 40- to 60-minute crazy writing students did in front of me with a pencil. The students go into a kind of trance. After 30 or 40 minutes, they write without knowing what they’re writing. And in this moment, the nagging devil disappears.

13:48 So I can say this: It’s not the hundreds of reasons why one can’t be an artist, but rather, the one reason one must be that makes us artists. Why we cannot be something is not important. Most artists became artists because of the one reason. When we put the devil in our heart to sleep and start our own art, enemies appear on the outside. Mostly, they have the faces of our parents. (Laughter) Sometimes they look like our spouses, but they are not your parents or spouses. They are devils. Devils. They came to Earth briefly transformed to stop you from being artistic, from becoming artists. And they have a magic question. When we say, “I think I’ll try acting. There’s a drama school in the community center,” or “I’d like to learn Italian songs,” they ask, “Oh, yeah? A play? What for?” The magic question is, “What for?” But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs. So in response to such a pragmatic question, we need to be bold. “Well, just for the fun of it. Sorry for having fun without you,” is what you should say. “I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway.” The ideal future I imagine is where we all have multiple identities, at least one of which is an artist.

king lear

15:21 Once I was in New York and got in a cab. I took the backseat, and in front of me I saw something related to a play. So I asked the driver, “What is this?” He said it was his profile. “Then what are you?” I asked. “An actor,” he said. He was a cabby and an actor. I asked, “What roles do you usually play?” He proudly said he played King Lear. King Lear. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” — a great line from King Lear. That’s the world I dream of. Someone is a golfer by day and writer by night. Or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter, secretly or publicly performing their own arts.

15:58 In 1990, Martha Graham, the legend of modern dance, came to Korea. The great artist, then in her 90s, arrived at Gimpo Airport and a reporter asked her a typical question: “What do you have to do to become a great dancer? Any advice for aspiring Korean dancers?” Now, she was the master. This photo was taken in 1948 and she was already a celebrated artist. In 1990, she was asked this question. And here’s what she answered: “Just do it.” Wow. I was touched. Only those three words and she left the airport. That’s it. So what should we do now? Let’s be artists, right now. Right away. How? Just do it!

16:44 Thank you.



You can view the original TED talk here.

Why the French Love Comics

Since childhood I have been charmed by French and Japanese animation or anime. TV shows of my childhood included Astro Boy, Voltron, Ulysses 31, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and more. They held a charm that regular US animation lacked!

cities of goldvoltron


As a young adult I discovered the works of Tin Tin and Asterix, both French/ Belgian creations. What was curious to me  was that these works were largely directed at an adult, rather than child audience.

Perhaps this fact helped articulate the charm these works held? These artists took their work seriously. It wasn’t just for kids.

tin tin

A bit of research reveals the fact that the French have elevated comic strips or bandes dessinees, to the level of a national art form labelled The Ninth Art. Comic strips for adults thus portray historical and political events and political satire, philosophy and more.

french anime


Certain characters such as Asterix and Obelix have become a part of national consciousness, embodying the national spirit. Peter Davy [2011] in his article published in the June edition of France Today writes:

The indomitable little Gaul fighting off invaders quickly resonated with the [1950s]  French public…..


Even today, the character [Asterix] continues to represent the determinedly independent French spirit. It does illustrate the fact that comic strips, or bandes dessinées, play a real role in what historians term “the construction of Frenchness”. To put it simply, Astérix is part of the French national identity.

He continues:

 The country boasts the largest comic market in the world after the US and Japan, worth almost €330 million in 2009, and it sells some 40 million comic albums a year. The annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême is the biggest in the world, say the organisers; San Diego’s Comic-Con doesn’t count, they argue, because it is an exhibition as opposed to an artistic festival.


The gallery dedicated to French comic strips, La Musee de la Bande Dessinee has been elevated to the category of Museum of France, equating it with the Louvre.  In fact,  the Louvre itself hosted an exhibition of comic strips in 2009.

french art

The secret seems to be to take an artform utterly seriously and allow it capture a national spirit. May there be many more de la bandes dessinees toujour !!

The Artist’s Gift

Various metaphors are used for artistic inspiration and expression.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Michaelangelo,  sculptor of the statue ‘David,’ is retold like this. When asked how he came up with his masterpiece, Michaelangelo simply replied:

You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.


The artist’s perception is that there is something in the stone that he, the craftsman must simply discover. This renaissance thought had much in common with classical ideas of inspiration.

Ancient poets and playwrights described the source of their inspiration as a divine ‘muse’ or a goddess responsible for arts and knowledge. This muse could be capricious, visiting the artist somewhat whimsically and contributing to great floods of inspiration or terrible creative blocks.


Elizabeth Wilson, author of “Eat, Pray, Love”  in her great TED talk discusses the merits of modern artists rediscovering the ancient notion of a muse.

Other artists refer to their work as “children”, conceived in the brain and growing until they cannot but be birthed with great labour pains. Another writer once described his ideas like little puppies, following at his heels and tripping him up until taken out for a run.

muse 2

Whichever way one considers inspiration, expression remains the same. Artistic expression is “work”. Whether the sculptor discovering the “David” within the marble, or the poet transcribing lyrics delivered by a muse, or an artist gestating ideas and bringing them forth with great labour pains, as birthing a child, the common theme is clear.

muse 3

Inspiration is often a gift received, while creative expressions is a gift given.

Folkenroth Fever

We are pleased to share this next guest blog by Damien Shalley. 

Damien Shalley enjoys breathing the cold air of solitude – as long as he’s got some company whilst doing so.  He’d hang an original Folkenroth in his apartment if he could afford one – an original Folkenroth or an apartment.

If you have a piece to submit to Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org


Folkenroth Fever!


Damien Shalley


The dull corpus of your Bear Skin correspondent was infected by a fever in the mid 2000’s, a fever which to date has not been cured.  No, not Influenza “A” or “B”, but something heretofore unknown called Influenza “F”.  “F” for Folkenroth – Caroline Folkenroth, to be precise.  This utterly underrated artist (married name Taulbee) first made her presence felt in the early noughties and by mid-decade was regarded by art commentators as one of the then ascendant “New Gothics”.

With her modernist works depicting a stylised and sometimes confronting take on female beauty (and her later, somewhat alarming surrealist pieces depicting abject despair – or her version of it at least), Folkenroth enjoyed a degree of success due to the relative accessibility of her painted imagery.  You didn’t need to be an art scholar to appreciate the emotions present in her work – she seemed to transfer her feelings directly to the canvas for viewers to experience directly.  Her pieces possess a wondrous feminine elegance.  And of course, some have been controversial – but not for the reasons you might think.

FOLKENROTH-folkenroth - mermaid


FOLKENROTH-folkenroth - water of life

Too obvious? – “Water of Life”

Folkenroth’s early pieces were defined by an obvious folk art style that some critics suggested was deliberate – a commentary on art snobbery or at the very least a pre-meditated ploy to create ripples of controversy with “outsider art” that would ultimately lead her to wider recognition.  Others with less kind assessments suggested that her style was the unfortunate result of a lack of training –artistic naiveté.  It is difficult to look at “Delphian Waters” and not agree.  (Folkenroth did have some formal training but is largely self-taught).

FOLKENROTH caroline-taulbee-FAIL-delphian-waters

Folkenroth fail – “Delphian Waters”

She also commonly utilised fantastical themes at this time – fantasy is prevalent in this phase of her artistic journey – but was also accused by some of relying on clichés.  “Oh Caroline, no!”  What’s a girl to do girl?  Well…

FOLKENROTH - carolinefolkenroth-a_simple_sight_for_sore_eyes-2004

“A Simple Sight for Sore Eyes”

FOLKENROTH-folkenroth - confrontation of guilt

As her self-awareness grew, Folkenroth’s work took on a new tone and complexity. In the mid 2000’s her output took a sudden, feverishly exciting turn guaranteed to put critics into a flat spin.  Her whimsical, lightly-coloured, quietly emotional art took a sharp left turn into oppressively sombre black and grey surrealism and warning-sign red nightmare images.  And it’s great!  She delivered some truly striking and often unnerving works.  The critics took a second look, the galleries clamoured for her pieces and the art world’s “Lilith” faction adopted her as a cause célèbre.  The viewing public were energised and inspired, and Folkenroth was knocking on the door of art world fame.  And then…nothing.  (Well, nothing much).

Art – modern art in particular – can be as fickle a business as pop music.  Trends come and go, and those in the right place at the right time get to ride the wave – for a while.  Unless your career is well-managed (like Damien Hirst’s, whom some might argue is more “managed” than it is “material”), you can flounder.  For whatever reason, Folkenroth never hit her stride and never succeeded in the way that many felt she could have.

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Folkenroth faded to a very significant degree after her mid 2000s peak and has most recently taken up sculpture.  Some of her works – she is fond of smiling angels – are very technically accomplished and as evocative as her best paintings.  (She also works in wax to a lesser extent).  Folkenroth has had involvement with A.R.T Research Enterprises – a bronze sculpture foundry working closely with the arts community to deliver highly technically accomplished sculptural capabilities.  Her paintings and her sculpted works almost never appear together though and must be sought out seperately.  The Lilith Gallery in Toronto, Canada holds a significant collection of her paintings, ensuring public access to her legacy pieces.  Folkenroth prides herself on having created her own “stylized visual language” as she call it and continues to work towards creating “a visually beautiful, sensual, and emotional euphoric experience” for viewers of her pieces.  Let’s hope she keeps doing just that.  Ultimately, what her artistic future holds is anyone’s guess, but we’ll always have her remarkably evocative early efforts to contemplate and to remind us that the ethereal female mystique will beguile artists forever.

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Velvet Nightmares – David Lynch and the Nature of Existence

This week at Queensland Galley of Modern Art, is the last week to see the David Lynch exhibition, closing June 8th. Our guest blogger in residence Damien Shalley writes this article to pay homage to the great artist and film director. He prefaces his work in regular form:

Damien Shalley once made a magistrate say “Good grief!” nine times during a hearing.  He remains completely unrepentant. He won’t sign your contract unless he’s read it or someone has given him the general “vibe” of it. He’s trying to sell a manuscript for a horror novel called “Trans Am Man” about the ghost of an evil mechanic who returns from the grave to give your sports car an underwhelming tune-up. He currently has no takers. He believes that “The King of Siam…sent a telegram…and it said Wop bop a loola baby wop boom bam!

If you have an article or submission to offer to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org.


Velvet Nightmares – David Lynch and the Nature of Existence


Damien Shalley


Many moons ago, when the polar ice was thicker and Whitney sang about the children being our future like she had just realised this, there was an obscure cartoon strip called “The Angriest Dog in the World.“  It was created by one David Lynch, before he became the “David Lynch.”  It ran in various alternative press newspapers like the L.A. Reader between 1983 and 1990.  (Your correspondent first read about it in an esteemed yet controversial monthly periodical which cannot be named in Bear Skin).  It was an unusual strip in that the art never changed, only the captions.  The angry dog could always be found straining on his leash and exhibiting hostility toward the world.  The captions were cryptic but often insightful.  “In this world, there seem to be several different theories which differ from one another to a considerable extent,” is one such observance.

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Lynch introduced readers to his constrained, alligator-like canine as “The dog who is so angry he cannot move.  He cannot eat. He cannot sleep.  He can just barely growl.”  But the angriest dog ever still managed to make more than a few relevant points about the nature of existence.  The strip could easily be dismissed as immature nonsense, but it did manage to find favour with an audience whose eyes were open to the absurdities and injustices of life.  One particular strip featuring the angry dog in quiet darkness at the end of another incarcerated day is very insightful.  The restricted animal– “bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches a state of rigor mortis” – has nothing to look forward to but quiet darkness and the end of another pointless day. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” his unseen owner comments from inside the house as the dog seethes about his predicament in the blackness.  How many of us feel (or have felt) similarly hopeless and hostile?  Our chains are invisible – work, family, mortgages – but how many of us can relate absolutely to the despair that is embodied perfectly in these simple panels.  Bound and ineffectual, inescapably retrained by our circumstances, we strive to obtain more from our existences.  This is the wonderful, insightful power of the “Angriest Dog…”  It makes us feel something – a basic truth about ourselves and our lives.  And this demonstrates just how perceptive David Lynch is.  Bizarrely, weirdly perceptive.  But great.

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Lynch, of course, went on to become a famous (if somewhat off-kilter) director of film and television, as well as continuing his long-standing career as a visual artist.  (His “Between Two Worlds” exhibit is currently showing in Brisbane at the South Bank Gallery of Modern Art until the 8th of June, 2015).  According to the Gallery of Modern Art website, found here , this exhibition depicts “…representations of inner conflict; and the possibility of finding a deeper reality in our experience of the everyday”.  It is primarily an exhibition of surrealist art in various forms; painting, sculpture, photography, film, installation s (including some lounge decor suspiciously similar that found in the Twin Peaks “Black Lodge”), but GoMA’s description seems a valid one.  Lynch has always attempted to do this – explore reality from a different perspective and find a deeper meaning.  He just hasn’t necessarily done it in a manner that audiences can readily understand.  Lynch’s work nudges viewers into finding the real truth behind it, or perhaps simply finding their own personal truth whilst looking.  This is what life is all about.  See his exhibit while you can.

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Lynch is now, most well-known as a director.  The controversial and bizarre “Blue Velvet” (1986) remains a standout of his filmography.  Despite depicting terrible violence and the sordid, awful, crawling underbelly of a picturesque American town with dark secrets, the artful film is also gripping and compelling.  His casting of the beautiful Isabella Rosselini  (playing “Dorothy”) as the muse of the crazed Dennis Hopper(“Frank Booth”) doesn’t hurt either.

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His cult television series “Twin Peaks” continues to beguile fans of the fictional Laura Palmer, whilst offering an insight into what lies beneath the surface of what we know as “Americana” – cherry pie, prom queens and “respectable” citizens.  His notorious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune” (1984) depicts in outlandish fashion an “infestation” of corruption beneath the surface of a ruling elite, whilst his 1980 film “The Elephant Man” – the story of the deeply unfortunate, terribly disfigured and publicly hooded Joseph Merrick – is another story about “what lies beneath”.  This particular theme – what really underlies the orderly surface of our daily existence –occurs so often in Lynch’s work that one might well ask what motivates it.  The answer might not be what you’d expect.


To some observers – despite Lynch’s successful commercial film and television career – it seemed that he took along with him whatever anxieties and anger he felt at that time of “The Angriest Dog…”  As he journeyed toward fame and creative accomplishment, he stayed very “strange”.  His personal life was messy and his creative choices were often bizarre.  An almost existential fear of relationships seemed to permeate his work.  Despair at the falseness of many human interactions, fear of betrayal, abject confusion about female sexuality and complete horror at the exploitation of innocence (and the consequences which stem from it) were hallmarks of his oeuvre. Why?

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Certain commentators have suggested mental damage or complete madness.  In their February 1991 issue, a US publication famous for featuring female beauty (which also contains excellent articles but which must remain unidentified here) profiled Lynch in exquisite detail and consulted a psychological professional to examine the imagery in some of his films.  The consultant was particularly alarmed by Lynch’s black and white feature “Eraserhead“ (1977), which he considered to contain visuals consistent with what could be expected from the victim of abuse.  (This remains totally speculative and completely unfounded – histories of Lynch’s childhood appear to reveal nothing but normalcy and a middle-class upbringing in a loving and supportive family).  “Eraserhead” is a bizarre film, featuring a mewling, deformed infant which some have likened to a skinned goat, and characters who talk to each other but never really communicate.  It has sometimes been described as a Freudian (or Lynchian) depiction of the fear of fatherhood.  Many men admit to such fears.  A man can love a thousand women for the amount of effort it takes to love one and raise a child with her.  And with a totally and permanently dependent child such as depicted in Lynch’s films, not only does a man’s freedom evaporate but also his financial resources.  Is there really anything so strange about what Lynch presented in “Eraserhead”, or did he simply depict onscreen (in a somewhat disconcerting manner) what men already know instinctively?  Watch the film and decide for yourself.

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Intelligent people turn to experts for answers – trained professionals who have spent their valuable time becoming highly knowledgeable in specialist subject areas.  Medicine, archaeology, physics, astronomy and a multitude of other professional and academic disciplines all offer important insights into our existence and can potentially open new realms of understanding.  This is a good thing.  Human societies benefit exponentially when their structures are based on truth.  But here’s the difficult part.  Some people can’t ever understand or assimilate this knowledge, no matter how hard they try.  They’re just not equipped to do so (your humble correspondent is one of them – “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking might as well be written in Chinese).  Individual intelligence capacity varies, and some people aren’t even remotely interested in exploring this type of knowledge anyway.  They have other priorities – work, family, mortgages – as previously mentioned.  They just want to live – live as a part of the world and not change it.  Intimate knowledge of the space-time continuum or how to modify the human genome to eliminate “imperfections” just doesn’t hold much interest for them.  They have questions, but they don’t turn to science for comfort.  They turn to their culture. They turn to stories and popular art – movies, television, music and more. And this is why art is so important – and where David Lynch fits in.


In a world with questions, many of which aren’t answered (or can’t be answered), a world which doesn’t do much to promote a broad understanding of the scientific answers we do have, art is important.  And an artist like David Lynch is very important.  He’s not just a maladjusted individual with some wealthy corporate patrons who gets to make movies for a living whilst you struggle to pay the bills.  He is the conduit through which people who are experiencing a particular feeling or asking a particular question about life can connect with someone else who has felt the same way and who has offered up a part of his own human experience for other people to share.  You might not “get” Stephen Hawking intellectually, but you’ll definitely “feel” the power of the art of David Lynch.

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And it’s not all doom and gloom in the Lynchian universe.  He is a stylish filmmaker with an eye for beautiful composition.  His villains are evil and abusive, yet also somehow compelling.  (The awful, real-life murderer Robert Blake of “Baretta” fame featured scarily and presciently in Lynch’s excellent “Lost Highway“ prior to his legal troubles and he’s impossible to turn away from).  Lynch’s ingénues are beautiful, elegantly coiffed and mysterious – with peaches and cream complexions and a seductive (yet often deceptive) wholesomeness.  He regularly contrasts the innate elegance of female beauty with the awful reality of forgotten American towns, almost like flower petals falling to cold earth at night and shrivelling before sunrise   Critics often rail at his subject matter and excesses (Wild at Heart is regularly criticised for violent content and this is probably quite valid), but they rarely criticise his work as being ugly to look at.  What any of it really means is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, but it’s all technically accomplished and mostly quite beautiful.  The violence in his work is ugly, but violence always is.  David Lynch is an authentic auteur – an artist with something to say who does so on his own terms for the benefit of all.  There are worse things you could do with your time than explore his intriguing works.

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David Lynch Art Exhibitions

  • 1967: Vanderlip Gallery, Philadelphia
  • 1983: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
  • 1987: James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1989: Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
  • 1990: Tavelli Gallery, Aspen
  • 1991: Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
  • 1992: Sala Parpallo, Valencia
  • 1993: James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1995: Painting Pavilion, Open Air Museum, Hakone
  • 1996: Park Tower Hall, Tokyo
  • 1997: Galerie Piltzer, Paris
  • 2007: Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris
  • 2008: Epson Kunstbetrieb, Düsseldorf
  • 2009: Max-Ernst-Museum, Brühl
  • 2010: Mönchehaus Museum, Goslar
  • 2010: GL Strand, Copenhagen[162]
  • 2012: Galerie Chelsea, Sylt
  • 2012: Galerie Pfefferle, Munich
  • 2013: Galerie Barbara von Stechow, Frankfurt
  • 2014: The Photographers´ Gallery, London
  • 2014/15: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
  • 2015: Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

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Inland Empire (2006)David Lynch Selected Filmography

  • The Short Films of David Lynch (2002)
  • Darkened Room (2002)
  • Dumbland (2002)
  • Mulholland Drive (2001)
  • Lost Highway (1997)
  • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
  • Wild at Heart (1990)
  • Blue Velvet (1986)
  • Dune (1984)
  • The Elephant Man (1980)
  • Eraserhead (1977)

The Death Defying Boo Saville

Damien Shalley is a regular [and popular] guest blogger for Bear Skin. He introduces himself in cryptic fashion:

Damien Shalley knows nothing about quantum mechanics, but won’t support it if it’s anything like the other mechanics he’s dealt with.  He puts raspberry topping on his fruit loops, which he fondly calls the “Breakfast of Champions”. He once ate an entire raw hot chilli pepper with nonchalant disregard for his personal safety.  He offers thanks to the paramedics who revived him.  He wishes “Scientific American” magazine was a little racier.

If you have a piece to submit to Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org


The Death-Defying Boo Saville

by Damien Shalley


Death frightens us all.  We strive to continue existing under almost any circumstance because human beings fear dying.  We fear the process of departing from this life, we fear no longer existing and some of us may even fear ultimate judgement or a kind of “cosmic justice” whereby earthly wrongs are righted.  Art is immensely useful in our human exploration of what scares us and what plagues our thoughts – resolutely and perpetually – in the deepest recesses of our consciousness.


The art scene of the early 21st century was impacted by a trend known as “New Gothic”.  Themes prevalent in traditional Gothic works of art and literature – primarily an obsession with death, decay and our ultimate fate as mortals – re-emerged in some thought-provoking and sometimes confronting works by the likes of Caroline Folkenroth, Stefanie Lynn Evans, Judith Weratschnig and many others.  One artist at the forefront of this new vanguard was Boo Saville.  Saville rose to fame with some startling pieces and attracted cashed-up buyers and media attention, but over time she evolved a new perspective on life (and death) and her reflections on those subjects in her work began to change.  She now no longer identifies as “New Gothic” – or Gothic anything, despite acknowledging that some or her existing pieces could rightly be interpreted within that framework – and much of more recent work is strongly akin to the abstracts of Mark Rothko.  But why?  Artists almost always evolve, but why change tack to this degree?  Strangely enough for a creative soul, at least part of the answer to this question lies in modern science.  The truth, as they say, will set you free.


Boo Saville’s “Polycephaly” exhibition opened in London in 2014 and the breadth of work on display showed an artist operating on multiple levels.  Her works incorporated numerous mediums – pictures created with paint, bleach, dye and even Biro ink – and illustrated various themes including death, but also life, love and hope.  These were examples of not just experimental art techniques, but also the evolving mind of an artist.  Questioned about the motivation behind her newer works by U.K. journalist Holly Fraser in October 2014, Saville was asked whether her philosophical position on death had changed.  Her answer was intriguing.


“I realised there was going to be a dead end. I found it confusing and hard to get my head around. I still do. We all do”.

She continued,

“I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work, and funnily enough there was this one podcast from Yale about death. It was about what happens when we die, why death frightens us, and whether or not there’s a soul. It amazed me. It got to the conclusion that we don’t experience our own death anyway, so it doesn’t exist to us. The only death we experience is the death of others, and that’s the hard bit to take as human beings. At that point I had a realisation and began making loads of abstract work because I lost that inquisitiveness. I thought, if death doesn’t exist then it’s an irrelevant argument.”



This statement is as illuminating as it is truthful. Medical science has shown us in recent years that human sensory functions gradually “switch off” as natural death approaches.  The slowing of the human heartbeat prepares the brain for impeding nullification, and we “shut down” quietly without full sensory awareness.  When the heart ultimately fails, the brain and subsequently the brain-stem deoxygenise and we slip away.  This might well explain the “white light” or “tunnel of light” phenomenon that is anecdotally experienced by some people whose hearts have stopped beating and are then revived.  Of those who are successfully resuscitated under such circumstances, approximately 18-20 per cent of people claim to have had this experience.  It is currently considered by doctors to be a function of oxygen deprivation originating in the outer brain and, due to cessation of blood flow, it appears to move gradually toward the centre of the brain and subsequently the brain stem over a period of time (somewhere between six and eighteen minutes, in some cases longer).  But people don’t experience this part consciously.  We may well harbour a fear of no longer existing, of no longer being “switched on”, but the process of departing is more than likely something that we as individuals will never know.  In a strange way, this process parallels our births.  We don’t recall them either (although some rare souls claim to have vestigial memories of this experience).  For the majority however, we only ever know consciousness.  We take our places in this world only ever knowing life and leave with that same knowledge.  And that may well soothe some anxieties at least.


The final comments on this topic are perhaps best left to Boo Saville – quoted by Holly Fraser in the same article – when asked about her current psychological relationship with death,

“It’s now just part of life to me. I don’t see it in a macabre, “monster under the bed” kind of way. It also helps me come to terms with ageing and my own body”.  And how should people cope with the knowledge that they will one day make an exit from this mortal coil?  Well?

“Making art is an amazing way of leaving something behind.”


Taryn Simon – Life in Details

This is the second guest post by fellow blogger Damien Shalley. AKA the cryptic-contributor, he introduces himself again in his own words:

Damien Shalley thinks Jolt Cola would be a better product if it contained more caffeine.  He failed statistics at Griffith University (twice) and doesn’t regret it.  If he went into hiding he would go to Paraguay, because everybody who went looking for him would probably go to Uruguay.  He believes that Ozzy Osbourne is a nice fellow, just misunderstood.  His favourite hobbies include surviving the weekend and shirking his responsibilities.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own piece to submit to Bear Skin, don’t hesitate to contact me directly jennifer@bearskin.org


Taryn Simon – Life in Detail(s)

by Damien Shalley


Human beings seem naturally inclined to organise things; our families, our work, our surroundings, our governance.  We develop systems and processes that help us to live safely and productively.  In doing so, we produce “artefacts” – records, objects and structures (both physical and organisational) – that provide evidence of our daily existence.  Taryn Simon documents and catalogues these human artefacts (and human lives) in a very compelling way.  She demonstrates, through her technically superior and artistically beautiful photography, something of the “soul”.  She takes delight in detail, and in doing so, shines a light on the complex world in which we live.



Simon currently describes herself as a “cataloguing documentarian”, a description that succinctly captures the essence of her work.  She is also, however, an art photographer of the highest calibre and has been collected by the most famous galleries in the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Tate Modern and the Pompidou in France.  She is represented by the legendary US gallery owner Larry Gagosian (Damien Hirst’s New York agent), and in the U.K. she is championed by the enormously influential connoisseur Michael Wilson.  Wilson co-produces the James Bond film franchise and is regarded as Britain’s most significant private collector of photography.

Favoured by celebrities and feted by the media, Simon retains an almost tranquil humility.  She is modest and remains motivated by intellectual curiosity.  She is a wife and mother (she is married to film director Jake Paltrow) and regards her family as her bedrock.  Her most recent exhibit, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014) was critically acclaimed by the US art establishment and might well have been the closest thing to a blockbuster art opening since the days of Andy Warhol.(Steven Spielberg attended, as did current A-list celebrities like Jared Leto and Elle Fanning.  This gives some indication of her fame).

Her work is now more “spare”.  It is carefully arranged and photographed in a naturalistic way to highlight not just obvious features but also the inherent integrity of the subject, whether human, animal or object.

“Certainly the progression of my work has very much been a shedding of style and embellishment.”

[O’Hagan, S. (2011)  Taryn Simon: the woman in the picture, The Guardian].

Instead, she creates “visual inventories” – of people, of the things people create, of life itself.


Simon was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001 and in 2003 produced her first published work, “The Innocents” –photographs of people previously imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  Now free, Simon’s subjects are photographed in places that reinforce that freedom; in their homes, in open spaces, in their favourite places. This work has been described by some commentators as redemption by photography.  Many of these wrongly convicted people were impacted by the misuse of photography by law enforcement officials using it to manufacture false or misleading evidence.  In this work, Taryn Simon turns the tables.




In 2007, Simon unveiled one of her best-known collections, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.”

This insightful work combined an intriguing concept with the beginnings of a new and unfamiliar approach from Simon.  Eschewing the “art house” style she had previously favoured, Simon opted for unvarnished objectivity.  This collection represents the genesis of her “cataloguing style”, albeit undeveloped.  (She would soon take this concept much further).  The pictures are not stylised, they simply “are”.  Simon depicts with a certain detachment some of the hidden or lesser seen realities of our world.  She unearths the unseen, unknown spaces and unfamiliar aspects of our culture.  She becomes a “social archaeologist” uncovering and shedding light on our artefacts, reflecting our existence back at us through the lens of her camera.  (In doing so, she creates another “artefact”: an archival photographic record for future examination).


What does it look like when a person is cryogenically frozen? (See above)  What does nuclear waste in storage look like? (See below).  Simon is one of the only private citizens to have ever photographed the inner workings of an American nuclear waste facility.   Her amazing photograph of glowing plutonium rods in storage (forming a shape reminiscent of the outline of the USA on a map) is one of her most famous works.



She also invites us (safely) into a bio-containment laboratory with test animals in cages; she shows us a human cage in the form of an exercise cell for death row inmates; she shows us a bottle of live HIV virus; she allows us to view a predatory Great White shark in an expansive and ominously dark ocean; she gives us the opportunity to witness the forging of a Smith and Wesson handgun frame.  (Incidentally, despite a formal request, Disneyland would not allow Simon official photographic access to any part of their operation, behind-the-scenes or otherwise.  Some truths might be too much to bear).  Australian Fairfax journalist Dan Rule in The Age (Melbourne)  saw these photographs as

high-definition visuals… photographs [that] defy their gritty, documentarian sensibilities”

[Rule, D. “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”,The Age, October 23, 2010].

This is Taryn Simon presenting raw, hyper-reality.  Anyone looking for the luminous photography of a Simon contemporary like Sally Mann should look elsewhere.  Regardless, this is a fascinating collection which provokes thoughtful examination of the lives we lead in western society.


death row

live HIV


 The “American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” exhibition was a major success and the genesis of Taryn Simon as “art photography superstar”.  Commentator Marcus Bunyan opined on November 9, 2010 in his Art Blart web journal [http://artblart.com] that Simon’s “Index of the Hidden” photographs “excavate meaning by bringing the shadow into the light in order to index our existence, to make the hidden less frightening and more controllable.”  This seems to be a universal human desire: to understand our world and, to whatever degree possible, control it.  With “American Index”, Simon seems to show that she understands, and is responding to this desire through her photography.  However her subtext seems clear; one can catalogue life to the greatest extent possible but still never truly control it.


2010 saw the release of Simon’s “Contraband”, a collection of 1075 photographs of items seized at JFK airport, New York.  From drugs to fake cosmetics, prohibited foods and counterfeit BWM badges; everything that human beings consume, trade or desire is here. The mundane and obscure take their place amongst the uncommon and valuable.  (Just as in human society?)  The pictures are spare and speak for themselves.

 reality of truth






This work was presented at the lauded Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and was described as a “visual inventory” or photographic catalogue. It was critically well-received in general, but there were “objectors”.  Some saw dull, lifeless photography that needed the accompanying (lengthy) text included with each piece to have any meaning.  Some questioned whether her photography was really art at all, or whether it was simply “technique”.  “Art” is commonly described as pure human expression and this is widely understood within the arts community.  One could easily dismiss these photographs – or photography in general – as a technical discipline quite removed from “art”.  One could also justifiably argue that Simon demonstrates artfulness by designing projects which examine specific themes (i.e. things hidden from view) and combines them with almost technically perfect photographic execution.  Art, like beauty, may well be in the eye of the beholder.

In 2011, Simon presented “A Living Man Declared Dead.”  This exhibition saw her examine bloodlines (she traced 18 family bloodlines across the globe), including those of people whose families had experienced disputes over inheritances.  Arguments over money, homes and land – “financial territory”, essentially – had caused one of the subjects she was observing, to be officially declared “dead” by a relative so that the relative in question could gain a greater share of their blood-relation’s deceased estate.  This is human behaviour that, although we would like to think does not occur, is actually all too common.  Those who did not wish to participate in the project for whatever reason (the “missing” and the “dead” figuratively and literally) are represented in the photographs as blank spaces.

For this exhibition, Simon presented what have been previously been described as “neutral portraits”.  These are photographs of individuals – human beings from across the globe – arranged in scientific grids against white backgrounds.  It almost represents a taxonomic key of human beings related by blood – a genetic “catalogue”.  Her emergence as a “cataloguing documentarian “was now fully realised.  Or was it?  More evolution was to follow.







Simon is most definitely a documentarian.  But she creates much more than visual inventories.  It has previously been argued (quite reasonably) that she is also a reporter, as well as a classic portrait artist.  Her work is most definitely rooted in the real world and much of it very well could be defined as portraiture.  More abstract commentators – cerebral types with a bent towards the ethereal – have described her as the living embodiment of conceptualism.  Her concepts, realised through a camera lens, deliver a powerful emotional effect on viewers.  Decide for yourself.

Taryn Simon cemented her place in the “photography as fine art” sphere when she was one of three guest editors selected to produce “Wallpaper” magazine’s October 2012 edition.  She chose as her theme “picture collections” and produced pieces including collations of celebrity photo magazine covers and compilations of photographs of highways and expressways.  Interestingly, the expressway photographs include stills indicating the impacts of freeways and motor transport on human and animal life.  This is Taryn Simon, after all – meaning seems to permeate all of her work, even for an “art culture bible” like “Wallpaper”.

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A significant dilemma for anyone identifying as an “artist” – particularly those delivering what might be regarded as “high-end” conceptual art photography – is whether or not casual viewers will be interested in looking at the work in question.  Will they want to patronise your exhibitions and will they understand your meaning, themes and subtext?  A common criticism of Taryn Simon’s work is that true depth of the themes she explores is sometimes lost on viewers.  The photographs she displays on gallery walls are generally accompanied by text, opening her up to criticism that the pictures do not speak for themselves.


Simon addressed this issue with her most recent exhibition, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014), a collection of photographs of props from James Bond films.  This exhibition introduced populist subject matter and successfully straddled the worlds of both documentary photography and fine art.  The props, appearing here out of context, take on a new life.  They offer insight into the human condition, they become objects of desire, theu become objects for examination in detail –not simply something which facilitates the action in a scene or enhances a plotline.  This exhibition met with wide acclaim from both the art establishment and the popular press.  For this exhibition, Simon viewed each James Bond film and extracted frames including images of birds. (All Bond films contain shots of birds as an acknowledgement to creator Ian Fleming; Fleming took the name of his famous secret agent from the ornithological book “Birds of the West Indies”- written by one real-life James Bond).


Switzerland (detail), Birds of the West Indies, 2014









 Taryn Simon, New York City, Path train subway, Tim Knox


GAGOSIAN GALLERY Opening of Taryn Simon: Birds of the West Indies


Life is important, a true gift.  We are told that a life of achievement is worthwhile, and that is generally true.  There is, however, enormous insight and power to be found in the quiet spaces in between our achievements.  Something essential to understanding our basic and universal humanity is contained within these spaces.  To know this is to truly relate to our human existence.  Simon truly “gets it” and delivers this through her images.

Taryn Simon elevates our existence.  She documents and and catalogues our world in an attempt to provide insight.  She truly is an artist – cataloguing in an attempt to create understanding, not in an attempt to control. There is something very hopeful in that.

Taryn Simon: Selected Major Exhibitions

  • Kunst-werke, Berlin, Germany, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents (and other works)” (2003)
  • Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, USA, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents” (2004)[29]
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, “Taryn Simon: Nonfiction” (2006).
  • Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, The Documentary Factor, (2006).
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).[31]
  • Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography”, (2008).
  • Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France, (2009).
  • Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2010).
  • Lever House, New York, NY, “Contraband”, (2010).[32]
  • Helsinki Art Museum, “Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts”, 2012.[36]
  • Moscow House of Photography, Moscow, Russia, “Taryn Simon”, 2011.[37]
  • Tate Modern, London, England, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[38]
  • Taryn Simon, Venice Biennale, Danish Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2011.
  • Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[39]
  • Galerie Almine Rech, Paris, France, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[41]
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[42]
  •  Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, “Birds of the West Indies”, 2014

Public Collections (Selected Major Works)