Dead Men Don’t Bite

Sunday, October 31, 2007
I actually saw Wayne Gilbert's show at the Art League last week, but Halloween seemed an appropriate time to discuss it. There's a lot to discuss; before we even get to Gilbert's style or content we've got to deal with his materials: human remains. Not squishy roadkill, or rotting zombies; Gilbert plasters numerous canvasses with the clean, dry, yellowish-gray dust, (studded with bone fragments) that is the residue of cremation.
How Gilbert comes by these eccentric materials, I don't know. Let's presume it's legal. But is it ethical?
By an odd coincidence, there was a story in the New York Times on October 26 about the city of Rouen, France, trying to return it's museum's shrunken, tattooed Maori head to New Zealand for "proper burial."
 
 
It's a collision of two conventions: one set of rules about how to handle human remains, and another set about handling art. But how to deal with objects that cross over both categories? According the the Times "the authorities in Rouen insist that the Maori head is a body part, not a work of art," but that's sticking your head in the sand — clearly, it can be both.
Since, as the pirate said, "dead men don't bite," the way we handle remains is decided by the living, for the living. Would the hapless head-donor of Rouen be happy to have his magnificent tattoos (admittedly somewhat shriveled) plastered across the internet a century and a half after his death? I'm sure he was proud of them when alive, but that's irrelevant. What matters is that WE want to see them.
Not so with Wayne Gilbert's paintings.
 
Calm and handsome, Gilbert's paintings resemble Chinese rugs, with their thickly textured plushy surfaces and muted colors. Imagery is Gilbert's problem. He's got a material that's a surefire conversation-starter, but he doesn't know what to do with it, shifting irresolutely from pop signage to biomorphic abstraction, symbolic pictograms, and minimal color fields. The only common denominator is the technique, but what a technique! I couldn't repress a queasy flutter as I studied the chunkier bits, trying to identify specific body parts and fearing to succeed. 
 

also by Bill Davenport

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5 responses to “Dead Men Don’t Bite”

  1. Where’s the exhibition? Anyone feel like making any comparisons to Dario Robleto?

  2. at the corner of montrose and bomar… but it was only up for one night.

  3. One of Wayne’s pieces was in a show for Marfa Open House WEekend, in a building that once housed prisoners of war. It was in the hallway when you first entered the vacuous building. I admit, it was forgettable until I overheard someone gasping at the materials involved…I took a closer look and shared your queasy response to its contents. Pieces like this dwell in a dark realm of ostensibility. The viewer is asked to believe in a mendacious amalgamation of ingredients, oftentimes I don’t see how you get around a medical examiner and sticky health code protocols to attain such materials. That’s not to say this isn’t possible, it’s just a bit dubious. Thanks for this post Bill!

  4. I did a studio visit with him a couple of years ago and my first question was who’s ashes are they? If I remember correctly, they’re the unclaimed ashes from funeral homes, or ashes willed to him by others. He likes to point out the hip screws and gold fillings in some of them.

  5. We recently opened the Camp Marfa show here in Lubbock. We had 2 Wayne Gilbertpieces. The morbid nature sure helped spark some energetic conversations. Strange how the dead are so fascinating to the living…

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