“Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes, with all else that men deem terrible, but more especially Death. Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure.” -Epictetus
About a year ago I posted a time-lapse video consisting of a hundred skulls being painted, each measuring 4×5″. Since then I’ve painted about a hundred more and put together a show of them in Asheville. The title I gave the show was Catacombs, and the location I chose was Izzy’s, a small narrow dark cafe resounding with moody instrumental music.
The skull paintings first emerged as a sort of palette cleanser and I had a ritual of painting one after finishing a separate larger painting. During one of these skull paintings I decided to do another and then another until I had a small group. When I imagined how a larger group of skulls would feel my thoughts drifted to the catacombs, and soon I was researching these underground tombs to learn something about why and how they came into being and were used. I was surprised to learn how vital a meeting place they were for a wide variety of outcasts throughout history. No less than smugglers, revolutionaries, pirates, and cults have valued these underground tombs as a venue for clandestine gatherings. Learning of this made me curious to know what sort of effect was had on the attendees while their meeting unfolded amidst rows of skulls staring on from all sides. Certainly, death had an influence on the course of action being determined by revolutionaries and smugglers, but what exactly did this influence amount to?
I think the unavoidable reminder of oblivion’s relative imminence served more as a gift than a morbid distraction, and I think it allowed those assembled an ability to overcome all other concerns and gain better insight for the success of their cause. The many petty worries that could have clouded the minds of refugees and pirates meeting elsewhere did not last when, standing in judgement before them, was the reminder of one’s own mortality. Though the catacomb was sought after for its seclusion and secrecy I think it inevitable that those who gathered in such a place also gained the lucidity of death’s council, and as a result led lives more memorable and fulfilling.
By painting a larger group of over 200 skulls I wanted to create a stylized version of a catacomb. For their display I chose a meeting place that is already appreciated by many for its unwillingness to cater towards the faint of heart.