Lately, the Phoenix Art Museum has been bursting with good shows — so much so that, on recent visits, I find myself having to zero in on just a few galleries in order not to get overwhelmed.
One area that I do find myself gravitating to often is the adjacent Marshall and Hendler Galleries in a somewhat hidden sub-ground level area of the museum. I’ve seen great Kehinde Wiley, Angela Ellsworth and Matthew Moore shows there in the past, and now the galleries are featuring “Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections on Love & Death from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen,” which is so worthwhile that I’ve seen it twice. Tonight, First Friday, might be the perfect time to check it out, as admission to the museum is free after 6 p.m. Plus, PAM is a hub for the Artlink trolley, and there are a number of family-friendly activities planned for this evening. (I wouldn’t suggest taking young children to “Vanitas,” though, as there is some nudity.)
“Vanitas” stems from Flemish still lifes of the 16th and 17th century that incorporate symbols of death and change. In more recent times, artists have expanded the concept to converge death images with the macabre, the spectral, the tragic, and often, the humorous — exploring how we resign ourselves to the inevitability of death. “Vanitas refers to the futility of achievement, love, knowledge, and riches,” writes former ASU Art Museum director Marilyn Zeitlin in an excellent essay in the exhibit’s brochure.
And so the exhibit offers an international range of artists, working in many mediums and depicting many subjects — all sensitively collected over the years by Janssen, who spends part of the year in the Valley. It is a highly personal collection, with a story behind each of the more than 70 pieces, as I learned during the media preview for the show.
Janssen, who is approaching 80 and who has been active in the art world for decades, told us that he has two positions about vanitas: the works can be aesthetically beautiful if you can transcend the subject matter, as in “Children’s Skulls” (2004) by Jean-Baptiste Huynh, a black-and-white photo that manages to portray a delicate tenderness between two children, even in their skeletal form. Or the works can tend toward the creepy side and be initially repugnant, as in “Teatro di Morte (Theatre of Death)” (1989) by Joel-Peter Witkin, in which tiny limbs and the decomposing face of a beheaded man spill from a skull. In any case, Janssen said, he has learned to embrace death and dying. In fact, he added, he has had to embrace it, given the times he has lost friends and loved ones to AIDS.
One of Janssen’s especially resonant comments — for me, anyway — was his explanation of how he addresses people who question his taste in art, when it comes to death images. He said a psychologist once told him that particularly violent or aggressive people are attracted to depictions of flowers and landscapes, while calmer, less aggressive people choose difficult, complex and “ugly” works. They go outside the norm, as an expression of who they can’t be in ordinary life. (Maybe that explains why I liked this show so much.)
Here are a few highlights:
— “D.E.A.T.H.” (2012) by Lucien Murat, a five-foot high tapestry, of all things, that blends a French country scene with figures that have deformed faces and with various worm-like creatures.
— “Anatomy, after Francesco Bertinatti (Pictures of Junk)” (2009) by Vik Muniz, a large digital C-print that is an overhead view of nuts, bolts and other junk arranged in the shape of a seated skeleton. The assemblage of junk had to fill a basketball court in order for the photo to be taken, Janssen said.
— “Selfportrait” (1988) by Robert Mapplethorpe, showing the famous photographer in his second-to-last self-portrait, a year before his death from AIDS. His head floats on a black background and he clutches a skull cane. A few feet away is a ’60s-era black-and-white photo of Mapplethorpe (by Judy Linn), reclining in the nude, young and vital. The contrast is jarring.
— “Running Through” (1983) by Karel Appel, a long canvas that depicts a white-clothed figure approaching a pit of skulls. Janssen said the artist’s intention was to critique the pope regarding his obligatory visit to Auschwitz.
— Three works by Fritz Scholder, including “Dead Indian With Snowy Owl” (1972) and an intriguing Polaroid collage by Stefan De Jaeger showing Scholder at home. It mixes fragments of the artist’s face with skeleton imagery and dates from 1996. Janssen recalled his long friendship with Scholder, who died in 2005.
In addition, find works by Luis Jiménez, Spencer Tunick, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Robert Arneson, Brassai, and Einar & Jamex de la Torre. As I said, it’s quite a show. Closing date is February 8, 2015.