The following quotes are collated from a series of interviews with contemporary artists whom I invite to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their creative process.
In these interview extracts, artists answer my question, “what’s the most unsettling work of art you have ever encountered?”
“The movie ‘Inland Empire’ by David Lynch. There is a scene in which Laura Dern’s character’s face bleeds through and melts. It is like the shadow self forcing itself out of her face. It was beautiful and disturbing all at once. I know David Lynch is inspired by Francis Bacon, it felt like one of his paintings come to life.”
“Every illustration from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz terrifies me, even the ones that aren’t specifically spooky subject matter. They’re by Stephen Gammell and make me feel almost nauseous. I say this with the utmost respect to the illustrator because he absolutely understood the assignment. (Here’s the eeriest one to me)”
“There are several, but the first one that comes to mind is “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein. Obviously it’s not contemporary, but I find that the anamorphosis in the middle of the painting is really something I can’t explain to myself. I think that it remains, even today, a unique experience, both by its perfect technical (even scientific) execution, but also by the artistic risk that it must have been.
I have never seen an object like this, placed on another plane of perception in order to hide it at first sight, to better make it reappear when everything seems crushed and unimportant. Perfect art.”
“There was this time i was inside of a walk-in installation piece of James Turrell’s at LACMA. you take off your shoes and walk into a room with 15 or so other people that is maybe 20 by 30 feet, but because of the lighting design and the curvature of the room it feels infinite. While you’re inside the light all around you shifts between tone and color.
There was this point where the light shifted from a pale pastel tan to a light blue, and, as that shift took place, there were three other people and myself who all sighed simultaneously. It was a satisfying sigh and it was involuntary, it came from nowhere and we were all surprised that we had the same unexpected visceral reaction to this immersive artwork. We kind of nervously laughed with astonishment.
I still go back to that memory often because it was a moment when art awoke something within me. Turrell pulled that sigh out of us unintentionally with this strange way a combo of colors triggered a muscle memory in us of relaxation and above all content satisfaction.”
Stuart Pearson Wright
“I can’t honestly think of any work of art that has ever unsettled me. One of the most unsettling experiences of my life however related to a kind of ‘exhibition’, though of course it was not an exhibition at all, just that what I saw had been curated in some sense, that it could be described on one level as a kind of installation. I am talking about visiting Auschwitz as a teenager and seeing a room-sized display case full of human hair. There was another display case just full of shoes. Amongst all the hair was a little blonde plait. That is the most powerful image I have ever seen and it still makes the hair go up on the back of my neck when I think about it, particularly since I now have a six year old daughter who has blonde plaited hair sometimes.
I recently had the privilege of painting a portrait of a woman who survived Auschwitz called Rachel Levy. I’d say that it was a life-changing experience listening to her testimony and being witness to her extraordinary dignity and inner-strength. In fact, my daughter met Rachel and we had a kind of tea-party together. It’s difficult to articulate my feelings at seeing my little girl in conversation with a woman in her nineties who has witnessed so much and not only survived but emerged as an incredible human being. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”