Visual Arts

'Death's Showcase' offers 10 visual responses to 'biggest mystery'

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes. That might be true, but there is an important difference between the two. Tax season conforms to a set deadline, still several months away. Death, however, is a constant presence, ready to claim each of us, any time, day or night, when our time comes.

That inevitable presence is brought to full view in Death's Showcase, the latest exhibit at Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery. The show features coffins produced by 10 artists to express ideas of death and associated feelings of grief and loss. Together, the works are meant to produce in the viewer an acceptance of mortality.

"Death is the biggest mystery, a wonder that no one is excluded from," says Steve Armstrong, an exhibiting artist and, with fellow exhibiting artist Bob Morgan, co-curator of the exhibition. "It's a subject that has long been taboo that, as artists, is one of our rationales to provoke dialogue in the community."

Says gallery director Andrea Fisher: "There's a long tradition of depicting death in art history. This exhibit shows an interest in how artists deal with death within the context of contemporary art."

Lexington artist John Ishmael's Untitle-able is a moving representative of contemporary thought on death. A slender ellipse, made of a light wooden frame covered in white paper, hangs from the ceiling of the gallery. A dim light glows gently from inside this man-made cocoon, depicting death as a mere transformation, part of our journey of existence.

Ishmael's work being the exception, the majority of the exhibit's works seem to defy categorization. Contemporary in nature, they make innumerable references to the past and traditional representations of death, creating a blend of past and present that defines a renewed outlook on death.

The first work the visitor encounters in the show fits that quality. Roy "Bud" Davis' Black Gothic Toe Pincher is a purple-lined black casket that seems destined for Count Dracula, but its future occupant will definitely be mortal: Davis owns and operates Burt and Bud's Vintage Coffins, a custom coffin business, in Murray. The presence of this "real" coffin, along with Lynn Sweet's ossuary for a recently deceased Down syndrome child, Zoe, heightens the recognition of the viewer's personal mortality.

Other works look specifically at past imagery of death. Jimmy Gordon's HA-HA-HA is a small wall-mounted coffin containing plastic Godzilla-esque monsters and one-eyed Cyclops surrounding a plastic Jesus, with several pairs of dice hanging in the background. Rather than being blasphemous, the work is a delightfully kitschy take on traditional apocalyptic imagery used by artists Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel the Elder, in which a roll of the dice represents one's chance of rising into heaven or being destined for hell.

King of Kings by Bob Morgan is a virtual cornucopia of vanitas imagery, symbols that remind us how quickly life passes by. From the traditional cards and dice of chance to more modern inclusions of "dead" batteries and broken compasses, the work overflows with allusions of our demise.

The show also highlights personal viewpoints on death. Diane Kahlo's The Exploited, the Disposable addresses the artist's connection to her heritage by celebrating the ethnic slur beaner and honoring the tragic deaths of two Hispanics: José Antonio Gutierrez, the first casualty of the Iraq War, and Ana Romero, who died under mysterious circumstances in Franklin County. Kahlo's coffin brings traditional Hispanic symbols together with Catholic connotations; a single coffin is covered in a bean mosaic, depicting sun imagery, skulls and flowers, while above, a traditional altar is host to candles and photographs honoring the dead.

Rather than coming into acceptance of death, a feat that the modern Western world will never achieve, Death's Showcase provides us with a new blend of traditional and contemporary imagery that brings a new recognition of death. Suddenly, beans transform into an idea that one must plant to sprout anew, discarded bottle caps are reminiscent of untended tombs, and death is shown as a release from today's horrors. By transforming ideas of death and demise from the traditional farming image of the Grim Reaper to more familiar symbols, Death's Showcase opens our eyes, if just a peek, into what awaits us all.