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Darren Waterston: Apocalypse (detail)

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

San Jose, California, Spring 2007

Apocalypse, eternally fashionable, is the subject of a 360-degree mural by Darren Waterston, painted on the four walls of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition site on South First Street. Apocalyptic visions take many forms in our times. All the Fin de Si√©cle prophesies of soothsayers and world religions resurfaced in the 90’s and continue to torment us. The Cold War nightmares of nuclear holocaust seem to survive in the proliferation of nuclear weaponry in an increasing number of unstable states. Post-Soviet mafia and international drug cartels threaten to destabilize others. In the US, the 9-11 tragedy followed by hubris want to sink this once-steady ship and take some smaller boats from the Middle East with it. For all our attempts at appeasement of the gods of nature we have failed to forestall hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. (An enormous transparent green tidal wave, as high as a cruise ship, approaches in one of my recurring dreams.) The Santa Ana winds and a raging fire sweeping through the canyons of Southern California seem pretty close to a Biblical last judgment. And there are the filmic interpretations of apocalypse by Francis Ford Coppola and Mel Gibson. With his emphasis on the land, Waterston’s painting may have more in common with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and resonate most with those us who fear we have fatally abused the earth and destroyed our ecological balance. Waterston allows that we may be “hardwired” to worry over apocalyptic ends.

Waterston is, of course, an artist of the information age and our post-postmodern global village where nearly all history and world-views are accessible. And in this context he is not the only artist to explore the world, literally and figuratively, and conclude that it is a scary and barbarous place, seemingly hell-bent toward destruction. Historically, such heralded artists as Durer, El Greco and Hieronymus Bosch portrayed this view and, consistent with a biblical interpretation of destiny, impugned our own degenerate nature. Waterston shows us a horrific beauty in Earth’s landscape, and suggests that its future in a mysterious and unconquered universe may now be out of our hands. However, he fails to cast specific blame, and the debate over human responsibility vs. predestiny rages on.

Forgoing a cartoon, Waterston began working from a series of wonderful small informative paintings and working sketches, some of which were shown in the ICA project room. He laid out the initial outline of the mural on the walls at the beginning of November. Then for two weeks he began to paint and direct assistants whose collective instincts and input helped form the mural. This and other aspects of the adventure represent departures from his usual ways of working. The type of walls and temporal nature of the mural called for adjusting to the color palette of house paint, and a flat graphic quality on much of the surface. These factors somewhat changed the basic formal character of his work yet did not diminish the ultimate impact, and Waterston’s prodigious skill as a painter of detailed effects resounds in such areas as the rendering of birds in flight.

A moving 15-minute film by Anton Orlov, documenting the process of creation of the mural, was also shown in the project room. Orlov visited Waterston’s studio in San Francisco to take stills of his smaller paintings and get a sense of how Waterston saw the project. At Waterston’s request and in response to the concentration of his assistants painting, Orlov focused closely on work of individuals, the faces and hands of the artist and crew, as they filled in large areas and embellished detail. The camaraderie and collaborative energy of the process became as interesting as the growth of the imagery itself. Manual fade-ins and fade-outs allowed Orlov to string together sections of documentation each evening until he had 10 three-minute sections of film. Two days before the opening, the mural was completed and Waterston returned alone, to add final touches to the work. He gave Orlov a tape of the music that they had played during the painting process, and Orlov entered into a non-stop 24-hour process of assembling, editing and recording. Out of 50,000 still images, Orlov culled approximately 30,000, and created a time-lapse sequence that captures the intensity and velocity of the project. In some sections, up to four layers of action are seen simultaneously. The selections of music – from Philip Glass’s Dracula, to the new age group Rachel and a string quartet tribute to radio – are seamlessly wound into the rhythm of the film and contribute to a poignant sense of urgency.

Was and Is Not and Is to Come, is an ambiguous narrative of devastation, lonely survival of consciousness, and an aftermath of unnatural silence marred only by occasional futile sputters of life – a final rain of fragmented earthly remains and the frantic flapping and screeching of birds. The last gasp of his tragic landscape is an ultimate calling of all things into one purpose.

A glowing, lozenge-shaped ember seen through the high opening of a cave is the first view of apocalypse in Waterston’s scenario. Not the promise of light and warmth, rather, this ember is a poison pill. The viewer moves from this dark interior toward the remnants of a once nurturing world, to a ravaged landscape where distant deforested hills are seen through a haze and nearby trees are charred limbless sticks. Oily smoke and dank rotting vapors contaminate the valley below along with a snaky black cloud that eventually disappears upwards. Suddenly it releases a shower of animal and mineral detritus – polluted water, sticks and stones, animal entrails and bird wings. On the last wall, a flock of blackbirds is startled and lurches upward, but the profile of their flight is marked by disfigurement, clumsy collisions, and dismembered body parts falling downward. Their trajectory is toward a fleshy pink cloud which arises from the earth, whose horizon is now unseen below. Iridescent red sparks float within the cloud marking the end of the panorama.

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Darren Waterston: Apocalypse (detail)

Life forms on Waterston’s terrain are almost completely annihilated. The last desperate flight of a flock of birds and a rapidly disappearing horizon suggest that the earth itself may be disintegrating. Neither humans nor the residue of human occupation on earth can be seen. But the assumed human observer is directed toward the sky. Are we to take a message from this upward gesture toward the heavens?

Darren Waterston offers a vision of apocalypse whose signification draws from both classical eschatological literature and personal iconography. Indeed, the title comes from the Book of Revelations, and the cave in the beginning of his narrative refers to the cave on the island of Patmos where John is said to have written the Book of Revelations. The breadth of historic Christian paintings and graphic works by artists like Durer were certainly an influence on this painting. But Waterston draws from Eastern philosophies and religious practices as well as Western. (Prior to revisiting the history of Western painting and Christian iconography, Waterston pursued inner peace through meditation, a movement from the physical body to the metaphysical body. Then, on a trip to Europe he rediscovered Flemish painting and discovered a re-enchantment with their characteristic detail and biblical themes.) The tradition of battle between the wicked and the pure, and a world consumed by divine fire is as old as the Zoroastrian concept, which informed Judeo Christian literature. From Native American to Norse, Buddhist, Islamic, and Hindu texts we are taught that a final judgment that sorts the righteous from the wicked accompanies the apocalyptic end. Pagans also saw an implication of good vs. evil, and the omnipotence of the sun in their struggle to maintain the fertility of the earth. While Waterston pays homage to the large body of this literature and tradition, he clearly resists placing his work in any single religious context or any implication that his End Time is a man-made disaster. The omission of a judgment of mankind may be consistent with an Eastern view that humans are no more significant than a cow or a leaf or a stone – simply an illusory form of the same matter, in a constantly shifting rhythm through an enormous universe that our little conceits do not permit us to see. Or it could be simply a personal expression of love for the essential elements of the unspoiled earth, the artist’s personal iconography and his own stylistic approach to landscape painting.

Waterston’s birds are repeat actors in his work. The artist has been an aficionado of Lepidoptera since childhood. As familiar apocalyptic omens, winged creatures represent messengers, perhaps an avatar of the word of God or a demonic presence within the individual. They are creatures of a netherworld, capricious, both hopeful and horrific, carrying a coded admonition we cannot access.

The questions surrounding the pink cloud are multiple. In hagiographic painting Saint Francis is often floating in or consumed by a pink cloud. Waterston began to paint the pink cloud as an homage to Saint Francis. Was it the nature of house paint that made the pink so fleshy in color? He acknowledges the emergence of shapes like fallopian tubes that he decided to accept. Does it still refer to blessing and protecting the animals? Is there fertility and hope in this pink form? Does it imply that the injured earth can regenerate? Or have the artificial red sparks and fleshy colors become suggestions of fatal bodily disease and radioactivity? Is all hope lost?

And finally, that nasty shower of rotting debris dumped from above? Earth’s gravity defied, the mysteries of natural forces that science has yet to explain, our superstitions as a response to our ignorance? Perhaps this is what we confront.

And so Waterston leaves us with an open-ended message to fuel our apocalyptic angst. If we have a God or a moral code, we have a punishment to fear. Or, we may be small-time actors in a much bigger plan or sequence of events. Perhaps our guilt is in vain, and the course of this little planet was never meant to sustain life forever.

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