Enclosed within the bright, open space of the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek lies a haunting sight to behold — an exhibition called “The Skull Show.” The expansive collection of contemporary art features media so mixed that it ranges from Jim Skull’s rope-woven skulls to Joshua Harker’s intricate 3-D prints and light-up installation to Quinn Gregory’s jewel-encrusted actual human skull.
Featuring the work of more than 90 artists from around the world, the exhibition, with its wide variety of art, is anchored merely by the commonality of the skull. In most contexts, this overwhelming incongruity would feel choppy. This kind of disparity, however, is a reflection of humanity — every individual life is connected by the universality of death.
There are so many narratives about skulls because countless lives have and will become them. Carrie Lederer, curator of exhibitions and programs at the gallery, writes, “As different as we all are, we are the same in fundamental ways — this is the underlying theme of ‘The Skull Show.’”
Bryan Schnelle’s giant collage, which is entitled “Prepare to Die,” explores the idea of mortality in connection with celebrity and commodity. He constructed the image of a skull out of magazine clippings of familiar faces and products. The collage is a comical critique of the illusion of immortality attained through fame. The conglomeration of manipulated photos enhances the sense of ephemerality attached to these idols of glamour and product placement.
A recurring motif in the exhibition is the skull in association with skater culture. “Decades ago, musicians, as well as skate, surf, tattoo and graffiti artists adopted the skull as their macabre, anti-establishment mascot, making it the universal shorthand for cool,” Lederer writes.
Ontario artist Beto Janz’s “Broken Decks” features just that — skateboard decks that have been ravaged into the worn shapes of skulls. As a mascot of skater culture, the skull becomes dissociated from death. Beyond its translation as cool, the mobility of the skateboard imbues a sense of vivacity into this emblem of counterculture.
The broken mobility of skateboards, however, in this work returns the skull to its morbid implications, now applied to skater culture. No matter how we try to change the meaning of the skull, it always returns to death.
Tony Bevilacqua takes dissociation from death to another level by objectifying the skull. The composition of his oil painting, “Skull Study with Cube,” has the contrived positioning and stasis of a still life. But this isn’t Cezanne’s “Pyramid of Skulls.”
Bevilacqua’s skull emits no so-called returned gaze — it emits no gaze at all. Set against the backdrop of neutral-toned drapery, the skull is paired with unlikely objects like a Rubik’s cube and an incense burner. The inanimate quality of the skull is in conjunction with its status as an object. Life is sliced out of this slice of life.
In this piece, Bevilacqua intends to turn the skull into another object to be studied, creating what he calls “the uncomfortable distance” between viewers and images of skulls. The skull is a part of us, a reminder of impending death enclosed within life. We dissociate ourselves from identifying with it because it is not all that we are — at least, not yet.
The iconography of the skull has always been a poignant indicator of our relationship with death. It shows that we have a bone to pick with, well, our bones. “The Skull Show” reimagines the transformative nature of the skull beyond the duality of life and death. But we cannot escape that we are ultimately just bags of bones, staring at inevitability in the holes where we will have had eyes.
“The Skull Show” is on display at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek until Aug. 31.
Contact Caitlin Kelley at [email protected].