Before chemical pigments began to arrive from the modern laboratories of Europe, artists relied on earth colors and vegetable dyes to color their paints. The dyes were often fugitive, destined to fade. Among the more durable were white from lead, the mined yellow and red ochres, and green from malachite. Ultramarine blue, made from Fra Angelico’s formula for purifying lapis lazuli, was the most coveted pigment of all in the early 15th century when Cennino Cennini wrote Il Libro dell’ Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook). Cennini urged artists to “enter the profession through a sense of enthusiasm and exaltation,” and invoke the name of the Virgin before touching these precious substances. Black came from burnt ivory or bone.
Wayne Gilbert’s solo show Art in the Third Person at Fl!ght Gallery presents a series of works rendered in natural pigments, the variegated earth tones of human ash made from abandoned cremains that Gilbert obtained from mortuaries and found stored in boxes piled pell-mell in closets. Mixed with a binder, but without adding any colorant, the cremains construct formed works and paintings on paper. The sheets are also made from human residue. Gilbert has left the ashes of each person separate, not mixing cremains, but utilizing them in similar fashion to medieval tempera pigments — a sort of color field painting. The range of tones is startling — whites, grays, tans, charcoals. We are not all left as the same dust. Respectfully, he has annotated the donors’ names on the edge or back of each work. In Different Strokes for Different Folks, a geometric piece, bars of contrasting color cross-ribbon the work. Other pieces introduce figure and language. The word “intercourse” is spelled in caps; a screwdriver is depicted in the single commissioned piece. Most intriguing are the works on paper. Houston artists were asked to collaborate by writing words from an irreverent, definitely secular text, announcing bits of wry comment such as “This is it!”
Using body parts or substances in art is hardly new. Reliquaries have housed saintly relics since before the Middle Ages; blood and urine have been used as art supplies in recent years. Photographer Joel-Peter Witkins arranged human body parts into still lifes several decades ago. Today there are at least two plasticized human cadaver shows, such as Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds,” on tour.
Gilbert’s work operates outside all these conversations. It is not Christian or science; he refutes all tendencies towards belief. By saving these burnt remains from the dustbin he has offered some sort of kindness, but to whom? Most unsettling is his lack of obsession. The works are done nicely enough, but are not highly crafted. His treatment of death is unusual in Western art for its informality, his casualness an affront to our habits of denying or glorifying death. What is left is just the improbable crazy accident of life.
Free, by appointment, Fl!ght Gallery, 1906 S Flores, (210) 872-2586, turnitoff.tv, on view until April 4.