I always thought I'd like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I'd like it to say "figment."
- Andy Warhol
The realization of one’s mortality is not an uncommon concept. Artists have been relating their concerns about living and dying since they began expressing themselves. The Latin term memento mori, meaning ‘remember your death’, has been a subject approached by artists from the Renaissance to the present day. Boise artist Troy Passey is not immune to the realization of mortality, as evident in his piece Hi Yourself.
On a field trip for my 20th Century American Modern Art class, we visited the Stewart Gallery located in downtown Boise. The first thing that struck my eye was a large skull done in black ink and acrylic on white Bristol Vellum. I’m not sure if it was the skull itself that drew my attention or if it was the clever text drawn below it. The words “hi yourself” seemed so illogical next to the image of a skull, yet it worked.
When I questioned the gallerist, Stephanie Wilde, about the art, she described to me the effect that Hi Yourself had on her. “The piece said to me, don’t get too wound up with who you are because eventually you die.” Stephanie is a gallery owner and an artist herself. Her extensive training in the field gives her an insight that might not be available to a more unpracticed eye. “The work runs much deeper than a lot of the audience allows it. His work is very personal.”
Stephanie went on to tell me that death is a common theme in art. “I myself as an artist have used the subject of memento mori. I used it not so much as a subject, but as a reminder. A lot of artists do that; you will see death pop up, and then be gone for a while. I think it might be an expression of what is going on in the artist’s life, what they want the voice of their painting to be.”
Stephanie pointed out that the artist who was being displayed with Troy Passey at the time—Benjamin Jones—also made a series of drawings that marked death. “When Benjamin’s father was dying of cancer, he did this whole line of skeleton drawings.”
Armed with this insight, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Passey about his inspiration for Hi Yourself. I wondered if something horrific was going on in his life at the time, or if he was just saying hello to death with a wry smile. “I was thinking about death but I wanted to be smart ass about it,” said Passey. “I think there are two approaches you have in life, because life is pretty dire if you think about it. The two approaches are very similar, you can laugh or you can cry. Literally, if you approach a person sometimes you can’t tell if they are laughing or crying. They are sort of heaving, it’s the same thing coming out. I’m going to choose to laugh at it and make fun of it. A sense of humor is really important to me.”
My conversation with Troy was lighthearted in nature…especially considering we were talking in part about death. You can see the influence of writing (he has an M.A. in English) in Passey’s art, as all of it includes text. His use of small phrases printed large, like “hi yourself,” have an immediate impact on the viewer. More often he uses small phrases repeated over and over to give texture, depth, and deliver a more subtle message. Passey comes up with an idea for his work, sketches several line drawings, and then waits for the perfect text to fit the picture. “I consider myself a conceptual artist in that here is a composition and it can be this way or that way. It is the idea itself that becomes the art.” Passey takes his former aspirations for being a writer into his work as an artist. “I wanted to be a writer my whole life. I kept a note book in my pocket and incorporated things I would hear into things I wrote. I still keep a notebook.”
Understanding a bit more of Passey’s process and being able to appreciate his sense of humor, gave me a clue to what Hi Yourself might mean. “The influence for Hi Yourself was a show at the Modern Hotel art event. I wanted to do something on a large piece of paper to display on a bed. A lot of my work has to do with sleep. One thing we do in bed is we lay down for the last time and we never get up again, so I thought I’m going to do a skull. I had no idea what the text would be and one day it just occurred to me, hi yourself, that’s it."
After my discussions with the gallery owner and Passey, I began to see memento mori everywhere. I was enrolled in a Renaissance Art class. The professor made references to skulls and other reminders of death throughout the class but I did not understand it as an artistic subject. My visit to Stewart gallery and my encounter with the large skull changed that. After an exchange of e-mails, Passey was kind enough to send me an image of his work under the heading Vanitas. I had heard that term during my Renaissance class in reference to Northern European painters but I never knew what it meant. Vanitas is Latin for Vanity; the literal translation is emptiness. It is used point out the ephemeral quality of life and the need to enjoy it while it lasts. Vanitas paintings often used skulls to symbolize the certainty of death.
Skulls are seen in the works of many modern artists. Throughout his career Jasper Johns would occasionally use the motif in his painting. Arrive/Depart, an oil that Johns did in 1963-1964, is an obvious demonstration of memento mori. Johns showed concern with the passing of time in many of his works. The title of this art—Arrive/Depart—can be seen as a reflection of birth and death. One would be hard pressed to argue that this artist focused on the end of life as a major theme in his work, but like some of his contemporaries the notion is definitely there.
Andy Warhol’s interest in death is a bit more evident. In the early sixties he produced a series he called Death and Disaster. After seeing a front-page photograph of a jet crash in the New York Mirror, June 4, 1962, Henry Geldzahler, the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, gave it to Warhol and said, “It’s enough life. It’s time for a little death.”
Warhol turned that into a reproduction of the photograph called 129 Death. The artist spent the next year making silk-screens of car crashes, plane wrecks, race riots, and murder. He would reproduce the images in bright colors and display them with a blank monochrome canvas in the same color. Like the vanitas artists before him, Warhol seemed to be contrasting the action of living and dying to the emptiness that follows.
Some critics believed that Warhol’s Electric Chair, 1964, was a political statement about capital punishment. Warhol denied being a part of any social critique, demanding “No meaning. No meaning.” I interpreted meaning in the silkscreen whether the artist himself did or not. At the right side of the work is the word “Silent.” Again, this seems to refer to emptiness. The picture presents a rather gloomy vision while at the same time seeming somehow sarcastic. Warhol's text, paired with the vision of death, had the same effect on me as did Passey’s deadpan approach to the subject. It made me smile.
I’m not sure how big of an influence Warhol’s work has on Passey’s, and I don’t know if Electric Chair in any way inspired Hi Yourself. One thing I am sure of, however, is that memento mori and vanitas have been a part of art for a long time, and will be a part of art for a long time to come. As long as we live, we will die. The reflection of that idea will keep showing itself through the hand of the artist. This paper, like this author and anyone who reads this paper, must eventually come to a close. Everything has a deadline and everyone ends.