Art Review: Protesting Pickman Paintings

The Work of Richard Upton Pickman

(Pickman Art Gallery, June 8 – August 16)

by Scott Woods

Outside of a taste for the socially repellent, sheer shock value, or a sense of fiduciary duty to local computer baron and patron of the visual arts Alex Visser, I can scarcely conceive of any good reason why the Pickman Art Gallery has chosen to broadcast such a wide version of their collection of Richard Upton Pickman art.

Most of the works on display were housed in the storeroom of the old Pickman Gallery for a great many years, with only a couple of pieces making an appearance in public space now and then. To exhibit so many Pickman pieces at once – some of them are to be on permanent display on the second floor of the gallery’s new address – is almost as curious as the work itself.

No one would deny that Pickman’s work is profound and largely well-executed, particularly for its time. It is work that can only be absorbed by a modern audience, an audience raised on cheap cinema: horror films and television. Pickman’s work – largely horrific scenes replete with demons, torture and witches – is the sort of thing we’re used to seeing in popular art forms, if not everyday interaction with media.

By the same token, the exhibit should not be dismissed as a mere forerunner to what we know today as horror and hackery. It is work that remains clearly executed by the brush and palette of a master at the top of his form, all the while calling into question his motives and, if history is to be considered, sanity.

Some of the work is downright blasphemous, and I say that as a person with no religious proclivity; I’m offended on behalf of the religious. His deep woods, churchyards and stone vaults are all given to horrific subject matter, but the apparent relish with which Pickman portrayed his figures and populated his scenes is…well, mortifying.

Even now, some seventy-five years after much of the work was created, it horrifies. I have almost no concept of what audience the Pickman Gallery hopes to attract with this exhibit. Take his painting, “Ghoul Feeding” (1924), which features a group of humanoid beings with canine-like features fighting over the remains of what was a man in a darkened park. Their faces are wrought with such detail and awareness of the observer that it’s almost as if the subjects know they are being watched…by you. This is the true monstrousness of Pickman’s work: that it seeks to draw you into its madness and suggest that you are not so far removed from its subjects.

Other paintings practically scream the concept of this evolution even more forcibly, most notably “The Nightly Reading” (1922), which features a family man reading from the Bible to his brood, one of which casts its gaze back at the viewer – at us – and whose features suggest that it was not entirely of this world…or that it indeed was.

There is an over-arching sensibility of knowing in the work, an almost snapshot-like quality to the scenes that, while clearly fantastic, chill upon viewing not so much for its content, but its ominous intent. The work does not feel pedestrian, does not come off as third-party. Pickman seems to have leveled the fourth wall and immersed himself in the scenes he contrived. And because you are standing where he stood when he created them, you become the party at which the occasional demon winks or whom the victims reach out to for help.

It is the most disturbing experience I have ever encountered during a viewing, and I have seen almost everything Renaldo or Picallo have done with my own eyes. Pickman accessed something that few painters do, some genuine sense of what lies beneath the civilization built before his time (or perhaps since), what has been laid to rest – we hope – by the paving of our city streets and the smoke of our busses.

I shudder to think of the kind of studio environment the artist inhabits to come up with these offerings. It’s bad enough that they are ghastly works, but the lighting on them is quite harsh, almost pop. A lot of the details – of which, again, there are copious amounts – leap at the viewer under standard lighting. It’s almost as if Pickman generated these works by candlelight, expecting the fires and flames he painted into his scenes to illuminate what previous hosts were unwilling to, and because of that his colors are richer, more complex, more real. Because of the decision to paint in a style that overcompensates so much, almost all of the paintings have a sense of impending danger that, despite their subject matter, is rather heady. Unfortunately, it is imbibing in all the wrong ways.

Because of the artist’s sudden disappearance in 1924, all that could be gathered about his creative process and mission is subjective and secondhand. Senior gallery director Dr. Alfred Thurber wasn’t very helpful here, despite a resume that would suggest otherwise. The pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit tells you nothing you don’t already know or that can be reasonably assumed with even a cursory glance at the collection. Dr. Thurber did mention that not all of Pickman’s work was on display and that, over time, the collection will rotate in some of the “less problematic” work. Tempted as I was to press him for what he meant by “less problematic”, I decided criticism was the better part of valour and left soon after.

All things considered, I cannot recommend the exhibit for general audiences. If ever there were a case for censorship, this work would launch it. I am not suggesting the display be terminated – I am nothing if not a stalwart supporter of the First Amendment – but it wouldn’t surprise me one whit to discover the doors to Pickman barred for public indecency while that work hangs on its walls. They have at least shown enough sense of fair play to keep the permanent exhibit on the second floor so that more standard fare can be had without having to experience the menacing work of Richard Upton Pickman which, as fantastic as it may be, appears almost to be a photograph from life.

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IFPArt Review: Protesting Pickman Paintings