Death always has been a great muse in the arts, beginning with “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the titular hero who yearns for a way to resurrect his fallen friend, all the way to recent popularity of zombie media. It proves the creative well has not run dry. Expo 216 is not oblivious to its inspiration, and hot-off-the-heels of their inaugural exhibit last year, “Ocean Plastic,” they present “Death and Dying.” The exhibition is spread across two floors, and features work from over a dozen local artists, painters and sculptors to costume designers. All approach the topic from wildly different perspectives.
Niki Hildebrand’s installation “Contemplating Transcendence” is the first piece to greet passersby in the form of 200 glass angel-wings suspended from the ceiling on scarcely translucent wires, traced with light from faint images projected through the glass wings. A closer look reveals subtle hints of color throughout the delicate wings, and starts with earthy tones at the bottom before becoming lighter as they ascend to crystal-clear pieces. Beneath lies a glass figure in repose, signifying the contemplation of transcendence alluded to in the title.
“We’re approaching a theme that isn’t necessarily anything tangible,” Hildebrand explains of the show. “[It] is very ephemeral, or about energy or your soul, your spirit. It’s open to interpretation. I really try to have an experience for the viewer so they’re not just looking at an object. That’s why it incorporates light. It’s about space and energy and feelings—all things you can’t really touch or grab onto. Feeling isn’t a tangible thing.”
Another striking representation of death’s intangibility is expressed by Nathan Verwey in his painting “Hope” and his woodcut print “Lost in Space.” Both center on highly expressionistic figures whose faces are rendered with introspection and quiet resignation as they confront oblivion. Verwey’s figures occupy two very different deathly environments, with “Lost in Space” centered on the figure’s detached head floating against a black backdrop. Conversely, “Hope” features a figure in a near-meditative state, with its head upraised and hands clasped in prayer. Shards of color suggest stained-glass church windows in the background, wrought in somber tones of blue and violet. Just behind the figure’s head looms a skull, and above them the suggestion of a scythe rendered in white paint. In each piece, the immediacy of death forms an environment intent on consuming the figures resigned to their fate.
“I wanted to show that even though death is imminent, directly at your back, breathing down your neck like you can feel it coming for you, there’s still a feeling that everything’s OK in this passing moment,” Verwey elaborates. “It’s the acceptance of death and being allowed to pass without tension into whatever shall come. I heard a Rolling Stones song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ and in it they sing, ‘I was around when Jesus Christ / had his moment of doubt and pain.’ That thought alone made me think of what it must be like to be in that moment, that last second before you go.”
Just as Verwey’s inspiration came from an outside source, so too did an external influence move painter Joan McLoughlin to create “Spectrum of Spirits,” a sequence of eight paintings arranged in four pairs. Each pair is arranged vertically, with one canvas depicting mundane aspects of life, while its counterpart hangs above to portray responses in the spirit world. For instance, “Obsession I and II” consists of painterly suggestions of human figures crowded at a bar on one canvas, while abstracted versions of the same figures float heavenward, interrupted by crimson streaks. Normally, McLoughlin’s oeuvre ranges from the representative to the abstract, but her work here is directly influenced by communion with spirits. So, when Expo 216 approached her to create suitably thematic work for “Death and Dying,” she was one step ahead of the game.
“What happens after we die?” McLoughlin muses. “I do believe in an afterlife. I also believe in reincarnation. I’ve always believed in spirits and have been interested in them, so that’s what these panels are showing.”
Reincarnation resurfaces in a different context via Janette Hopper’s sculptural work “Skull” and “Antlers,” which are masks fashioned out of natural materials: fallen leaves, discarded feathers, wasp nests, and animal bone. “Skull” appears self-contained and stoic, with chunks of bone, while “Antlers” features sprawling moss-covered branches and fraying leaves. One feature they noticeably share is the lack of a mouth. According to Hopper, his understated message represents nature’s lack of voice, indicative of an environmental call-to-action.
“I wanted my work to be more than something beautiful to hang on the wall,” she elaborates. “I wanted to show off the natural materials we have in nature that we may not notice. Most of us are so busy with our families and trying to make a living, we get very little time to be directly with nature, so I thought I would bring nature to people. I wanted it to move us to action to protect the environment.”
Hopper’s masks face competition from a wide array of funerary objects on loan from Charles Jones African Art. Many are masks used in remembrance celebrations. Jones has collected African art for 25 years, and he acts as an exhibitor and consultant for collectors of traditional African art and artifacts. An important aspect of his work is anthropological, since the art he displays was made for social use and not as art sold to tourists. In examining the cultural aspect of the funerary objects, parallels can be drawn to contemporary practices.
“A lot of African masks are danced at funerary ceremonies,” Jones clarifies. “African funerary traditions are often more of a celebration, and you see it reflected in black American culture, particularly in New Orleans where they have second line dancing and jazz funerals that are not particularly mournful. They look at death as a transition rather than being the end of something.”
Perhaps the work most deeply and painfully emblematic of transition and ceremony is nestled in a corner of the upstairs gallery, where Carole Osman presents paintings and photographs of Japanese jizo statues. The tiny statues resemble children and are made for mizuko kuyo, a grieving ceremony for women who have endured miscarriages, stillbirths and abortions. Women care for the statues, keeping them clean and outfitting them with season-appropriate clothing throughout the year. Osman was caring for her ailing 95-year-old mother in Japan when she was struck by the intense dedication she witnessed.
“The pain seen in how they are taking care of the stone representations, that’s what drew me to them,” she reminisces. “It’s a remembrance for the children, so hopefully they’ll be warm and happy in the other world. . . . I was trying to draw out who [these people] were—who were these children, trying to see them in the stone?”
“Death and Dying” will run for roughly a year, keeping with Expo 216’s protocol of long-running exhibitions. Most works on display are for sale, with some—like Verwey’s prints and Hildebrand’s angel-wings. Other pieces, like Osman’s, are too personal to warrant a price-tag.