A Pile of Bones at the Base of Art

Reveries on the Art of Shelton Walsmith










sick and tired of my ass

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and the blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

- Edward Dahlberg, "The Leafless American"

I recall wandering through a typical gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico where my gaze drifted over one unremarkable drawing after another. Each was either too self-conscious of its effect, like a seven year old girl putting on her mother's make-up in a mirror, or each was devoid of any trace of the human spirit behind it, circles drawn by a compass.

But then, in the back of the studio, were a series of small drawings that riveted the eye. They were gestures, devoid of self, but also expressive of a deep sense of humanity, pure, simple and full of grace. I looked for the name of the artist and laughed to see it was Picasso. If I had known much at all about art, I should have recognized it immediately as having his distinctive style and energy. As it was, I pleased of having at least recognized an authentic gesture.

These drawings of Shelton Walsmith are resonate with the pure gesture, with the uniquely human voice, with the line that is evocative of the ineffable meaning of melody. They are rich with iceberg-like images, figures of private mythologies emerging through familiar lineaments of public faces. The imagination strives to re-collect meanings amongst the images and lines, but discovers itself driven away every time by the strangeness and the beauty.

The words that I have collected around these images are like vultures following the living presence into the desert. The language has no hope of feeding upon this flesh. My desire is that they will merely trail along behind the images, occasionally circling, never descending. They are not captions. They are not descriptions. They would not exist without the images. And the images will always endure beyond the predatory attempts of language to grasp hold of their manifold meanings.

Benjamin stated that "at the base of every work of art is a pile of barbarism". If we are to take this as fact, then most of what is called art in our culture is mostly a radical turning away from the pile of bones at the barbaric base, in short: kitsch. As such, the range of response we might have for something as terrible as the death of God has become epitomized by a generic Hallmark card expressing sympathy through the a soft focus photograph of a kitten on a pillow.

Clearly, the vocabulary, the imagery, must be extended.

The drawings that follow are indicative of the direction we might take towards this extension.

40 days in the desert

Beautiful and strange pre-historic beasts prowl the deserts of the American landscape, frenzied to avoid the advertized tar pits of plastic imagination. How much artistry has been tapped out of the soul and pressed into the hardened form, made over a million times to be handled into oblivion by the wet fingers of wasted infantile America?

How can an artist survive?

an american scene

I walk through the gutters of the gift shops and see a stuffed animal-like figure from Munch's Scream, a warped clock from Dali's The Persistence Of Memory, and endless reproductions of Van Gogh on everything from shower curtains to toilet paper. 

What chance to establish relevance does a new work of art have in this world?

old constructions

We have strip-mined the meaning out of art. We have diluted the language. Perhaps the only hope we have is through enchantment of the primal past - those moments from the forge of creation.

valley of the shadow

There is no escaping the Edenic trace, the infection of the Western Lands. And the worm of desire, slowly feasting upon the tissues of the heart, turns slow arcs with the pulsing pools of the blood. For two hundred years now, the question has been muttered as Liturgy, dust on the tongue: Is this the end?

And later: are there no more beginnings?

madam 'i' madam

From the Garden: the hand of the God reaches into the dream of the flesh and breaks off a bone of breath. Our solitude uncovers its appeasment in the shape of our innermost self made separate. The blood seed in the womb becomes pain, temple of desire, the still point of birth and death.

counting at night

The pendulum of our sexualities describes roselike arcs between Eros and Thanatos, birth and death, womb and tomb. We lust and dust in holes for bones.


What genocides do we endure as mere background noise to our own symphonic histories? Is this human nature? I have reservations about ancient tribes, wandering across the paved-over expanses of a strip center hell. And the priveleged summer camps were concentrated on preserving the names only of the tribes: Iroquoi, Cherokee, Choctow, Karankawaa.

- action verb +

Trains rumbled underneath the Nocturnes of Chopin. And the wisest man I know tells how the grove of trees once sacred to Goethe was preserved within the barbed wire fences of a concentration camp.

The supreme artifact of human being: melody mixed with scream.

chameleon's holiday

Is there some way back into the crucible of our conflicted nature? Not as a means to heal, but to recover something of the meaning of our being.

myth of the piggy back pt 2

What I want here is not the deadened scar of desensitization that results from even the most mundane exposure to mass culture. What I want is the rich spectrum of vulnerabilty from the open wound kept open.

The new and strange artifacts of the rare creator speak of this re-turning, or this re-covering, of this opening, this bleeding authenticity.

conservationism one million

What currnet myths inform our meaning without absolutely negating us? I mean, the Modern American Dream has become so handicapped by vacant cultural values that any valid myth acts like a five hundred pound crutch.

Any redemption that we might find has to be in creating new myths, new symbols and a new language.

flip wilson book

What is it when we can no longer believe our national leaders, our state goveners, city managers? We can no longer trust the military, the police, the security teams. We can no longer trust our neighbors, our spouses, our lovers, our children. We are overrun by suspicion and doubt. We beileve that anything can be believed in. We hunger for distraction, entertainment, sport. At the bottom circle of our souls, we seek only to not have to truly ever face ourselves in the mirror.

4th place for the third time

What are the conditions for a culture to have fertility? To nourish the seeds and roots of authentic art, relevant and vital poetry, drama and music?

Buried up to their neck in the Lake of Ice, who is singing?

Under the retailed wheel of the nine to five, who is being broken?

dispersing group

There is only the Self - not the persona, the mask, the monkey-like ego cowering in the corner - but the Self. Not the face, but the Skull. Something deeper, transcendental, overcoming. Some common element to Being. Beyond human.

That we, a few, stand up to our necks in this pile of bones, just a hair less than the ape, and can endure... not just endure but actually create art... and not just... not just... but beautiful... this, this is indeed all we on earth need to know.


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