UNCANNY NORMS

Diploma Exhibition 2020

The 36 square paintings, specifically done for my university diploma, balance attraction and deterrence. Disgustingly curious. Curiously disgusting. Thematically the paintings position themselves between horror-, pop- and counter culture. The square format and number were influenced by a previous series of works called "Instalikes". The paintings were exhibited in January 2020, at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

UNCANNY NORMS
 
Hidden in the dark corners of our collective mind, there lingers something inexplicably curious.
Have you ever woken up from a dream, drenched in sweat, with your eyes wide open, trying to breathe away the effects of an imaginary, but deeply unsettling encounter?
 
Our imagination is capable of creating the strangest things. In our dreams we can confront the uncanny. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately translate this information into visual language. The uncanny’s full constitution will remain unexplored, profiting off of our mind’s incapability to imagine and remember large amounts of detail at once. While remembering the content of a dream can be practiced, an accurate translation of that dream is doubtful at best. When imagining a complex thing such as a face, for example, very few of us are able to render in our minds a fully detailed image. Shifting ones mental focus, like a flashlight, allows us to give a temporary shape to part of an image. The rest of the picture slowly fades into the shadows.
Amazingly, our brains require very little information to begin classifying the gaps in a stream of information. Think of how quickly we discover faces in details of inanimate objects. A car’s headlights, for example, can easily be thought of as a pair of eyes. In the dark, a pile of clothing on a chair or a dark coat hanging on the wall, can look like an intruder breaking into our home.
 
In my paintings, I attempt to evoke the spirit of otherness, horror, pop- and counterculture. Light, as a tool of discovery, seeks to illuminate aspects of my paintings that create discomfort. In most instances, light shines like a flashlight, telling you exactly where to find this strange other. The viewer is shown blood and gore, wild creatures and scary monsters, but there are moments of lightness and even a subtle humor that lift the overall mood of the artwork.
 
In the following passages I will explain some of the paintings’ contents and how they individually approach the uncanny.
The first painting I produced for this series is black and white. I had the idea of a black alligator, hunting in the night, lucifugous and evading our sight. Due to their close relation to dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians and birds have an aura of survival and predation.  While researching children’s obsession with dinosaurs, I found it curious that humans, at such an early age, often enjoy dealing with scary, unpredictable things. Big machines and vehicles, dinosaurs and large animals, create enormous amounts of curiosity and benefit our creativity as well as playing a crucial part in how we learn to gather and categorize information. Fugitive, living dinosaurs became the first image to represent my investigation.

The next painting demanded colour. Burning forests and videos of people making their ways through a conflagration by car have been circling the media for a while. (This was shortly before this year’s Australian wildfire season.) I found inspiration in footage of the  2016 Gatlinburg wildfire and the 2017 wildfire filmed from Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. The footage available suggest a devastating experience for those involved. Cars try to make their way on an infernal route. Black smoke, lit theatrically by burning trees, clouds their path. The fire appears to consume everything, stretching endlessly. A burning forest is in a state of existence that does not allow any life. The horrific imagery and the hellish colours of the environment around those people served as an entry point to the uncanny.
 
Vagueness, to me, plays an important role in both painting and horror films. Some of the subjects of my paintings, the bat like creature for example, provide little information beyond their silhouettes. The bat’s head looks misshapen, possibly covered by something like a mask or tarp. The wings of the creature stretch beyond the borders of the painting. Any attempt to further define this thing seems futile. In most instances, I avoid giving too many hints as to exactly what the viewer is seeing. Only the other silhouette at the bottom, a human, dwarfed by the bat, gives us a sense of scale.
 
It is a joy to play with cliched horror imagery. Winged demons, castles, graves, mythical artifacts, murdering lunatics and skeletons have been the favorite subjects of many artists. There is a vast amount of famous visual artists such as Johann Heinrich Füssli or H.R. Giger, that delved into horror. Füssli demonstrates clearly how to direct the horror of the uncanny in his most famous painting, The Nightmare. A small, evil creature and a horse with white eyes appear to a pale woman, lying in bed, either asleep or unconscious. The short humanoid monster cowers on her chest, while the horses head protrudes from heavy curtains, both clearly crossing boundaries. Giger created a universe from the horror within. Bones and Metal, sexuality and violence, insects and humans all directly influenced his art. Then there are artists working in theater, film, video-games, tabletop miniatures, comics, collectibles and so forth. Studios, Writers, makeup artists, sculptors, animators, set builders, actors, and other creative types come together to produce new experiences as well as homages to the things they love. There are obvious examples, such as Tim Burton’s gothic and halloween inspired style throughout all of his movies. Hammer Films brought the Universal Studio monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy,…) to a new generation. Any special effects or make up artist knows who Ray Harryhausen and Dick Smith were. There are multiple famous Japanese video game series, like Castlevania, which are exclusively set in old, spooky villages, forests and dungeons, featuring vampires and other murdering hell-spawns. From medieval paintings of torturing devils to modern video game depictions of violence, we have always been aware of the dark side of the mind. In the news, we are confronted with human horror, terror, suffering, and lack of control over our lives. In horror films, the viewer is allowed to venture even further into the realm of the uncanny by incorporating fiction. We expect the killer in a slasher movie to survive several fatal injuries. When they are dead at the end of one movie, we know they will be resurrected in time for the sequel.
By the time the third or fourth installment is released, some viewers might feel that they have familiarized themselves so much with the killer and his deeds that they find themselves almost desensitized to the gore.
 
That is why some of the paintings show a more familiar version of the uncanny. Some expose the reality of special effects, such as the pink painting of an evil looking, animatronic skull. Others approach horror with humor. As we look beneath the surface and challenge our own perceptions, we might find that even within the most absurd juxtaposition, common ground can be found.
Straying away from horror, there is a portrait of a friend of mine amongst the paintings. As a tattoo artist he took, what I would consider, drastic steps in redefining his appearance. He told me of the complications and discomfort that arise in daily interactions. People stare, whisper and even vocalize their distaste, when beneath the superficial uncanny there is a great and positive otherness.
Ultimately the uncanny is nothing other than something unfit for the status quo. It is something that diverges from our own norms and the norms of society. Artists have always found ways to enrich society by surpassing limitations set by others.  By exploring and manifesting fantasies that others can only dream of, the artist creates a basis for reflection and progress for themselves and those that join their journey. 

Alongside the paintings that feature classic horror film tropes, one finds a depiction of Angela Lansbury. She is portrayed in her role as Jessica Fletcher, the protagonist of Murder She Wrote. Of course neither the TV show, nor the beloved actress are scary in nature. Discomfort comes from the way she is positioned in the midst of a large, bright yellow and orange kitchen. A window leads to the outside and the cold of the outer world. The collision of yellow and blue which creeps from outside and into the clothing of Ms. Lansbury, reminds me of the visual horror that is the IKEA logo.

A similar blue glow can also be found in another work that is painted in a classic 80’s horror color scheme of blue and reddish pink. The painting features a blue backdrop which looks a bit like a wall with piping. In the foreground, a strange pink shape holds a woman and devours her head first. This is not the first time that oversized mouths have found their way into my paintings.
Other paintings show mouths that have been opened beyond their natural reach. The very pink, aforementioned painting shows the animatronic skull of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. Without it’s soft, white skin, the features of the fictional character look menacing. The gap between  upper and lower jaw, where the cheeks would be, is just a vertical cut.
 
In another painting, I use a special effects prop of a dummy head with it's mouth tearing open at the corners. Here too, neon pink is used to represent the agony of a process that implies a kind of self-mutilation to a body part that is connected to self preservation and expression.
The blue and pink colour scheme from above returns in a painting that shows a blue building where neon pink lines reach in from the top, like tentacles. The building is a concoction of typical scary places. I was influenced by gas stations, marauded cabins and horror houses in movies as well as nighttime photography of empty streets.
A similar setting, void of humans, can be observed in a painting depicting a green glowing deer-like creature, lit by what looks like headlights, or a form of heat- or night-vision. The isolation of the viewer, alone with the uncanny, becomes less threatening through painterly abstraction.  We perceive the painted thing as a copy, a likeness of the uncanny, which of course it is. Standing at the edge of a domain that appears unfazed by our societal norms, such as the forest, seems to exert as much fright as an actual confrontation with the uncanny. As we inspect the materiality of the painting, we rationalize away the danger and angst. After all, a movie is just a movie, and a painting is just a painting.  The contents of a painting can only lead to a process of reflection, not an actual encounter. Whatever is added by the viewer’s mind, those fillers to the gaps in a stream of information, is what should scare us. Because only in our mind can we truly confront the uncanny.