Visual art is one of the most suitable means to perform a search for identity and explore the dynamics of heritage. The work He died for US? (fig. 1) uses colors interplay as well as an engaging composition and a peculiar texture to convey the complexity of racial identity in the modern world. The central figure of the painting is a traditional symbol of a martyr. The artist chose to use this figure for a specific reason: the combination of iconic symbols in this works allows to re-contextualize these classic symbols. Other important elements include nails, gold leaf, a hanging rope, and a stark white background. The interplay of these components is designed to provoke and disturb through combining the antipodes: black and white, dead and immortal, modern and ancient.
The very composition of all the elements makes the viewer wonder whether the painting is static or dynamic: is the martyr being hanged or is he already dead? The strong impression provoked by the art is that the act of hanging seems like a focal point of the whole artwork. It is highlighted by the gold halo around the man’s head and the contrasting white background. In addition, the martyr himself “looks” upwards encouraging the gaze of the viewer to explore the top section of the painting. The hanging of the central figure allows the artist to reach to depict another pair of antipodes: the pose is both calm and tense – one cannot guess if the martyr is still alive. Undoubtedly, the figure conveys a grim and depressing mood, but the calmness has a certain touch of grace to it. As a result, the negative mood of the artwork is somehow honorable and graceful rather than repelling. One tool is very successful at maintaining a firm connection between the viewer and the piece of art: the artist’s use of nails. Generally speaking, the choice of texture can hardly be accidental: the work is painted on the wood, which is also pierced by numerous nails. The nails have many effects on viewing the piece: they encourage the viewer to come closer and explore the texture of the work, they provoke by their symbolism of pain, and they also transform the artwork into a three-dimensional story. The nails are deliberately provocative: their aim is to engender an interest in the martyr’s silhouette and a firm feeling of sympathy. The interplay of colors on the painting is another powerful instrument of engagement. The dominant color is certainly black on the sharp white background and with the piercing inclusion of the nails’ silver. The contrast of black and white provokes reflections on the clashes of identity and makes the viewer wonder about the deliberate choice of colors. Moreover, the inclusion of a golden halo serves as an elegant way of bringing religious identity into the composition. All this interplay is a symbolic reminder of the message of poly-identity, which appears to be embedded in the painting.
The proportions of He died for US?, including the central figure, do seem to be realistic, which is verifiable by the comparison with the rope’s size. At the same time, the outline, and the use of linear elements in general, is extremely fuzzy and unclear. The entire painting achieves a dotted effect primarily as the result of the artist’s use of nails. There is a certain impression of geometric proportions of the figure, which are, however, deliberately broken by the asymmetrical three-dimensional nature of the artwork. At the same time, this conflict of smoothness and fuzziness is very subtle and only beneficial to the idea of making the piece of art look alive and engaging to the viewer. The artist employs a unique method for achieving a peculiar 3-D texture of He died for US?. A closer look at the painting reveals that hundreds, or even thousands of nails, are hammered at differing depths. Consequently, this becomes an exquisite way of achieving a rich texture and halftones. Thus, the shadowing and the halftones originate from varying sizes and hammering depths of the nails rather than the use of colors or composition elements as such. From a purely technical point of view, this method is a very prominent artistic solution. The uniqueness of artistic method of He died for US? results in a noteworthy creation of space of the painting. Being seemingly three-dimensional the artwork prepares the ground for an illusion of a large space around the figure. The viewer’s impression may very well be that the central figure is coming out of the frame, which has a powerful engaging effect.
The final major element of this piece of art is the light. In contrast to the use of nails in creating the texture, claiming the space, and highlighting certain emotions connected to the subject, the light is conveyed primarily by the use of colors. Apart from the fact that the contrasting white background and the black central silhouette is already a light-creating technique, the artist highlights the centrality of the martyr’s silhouette deeper by using brighter tints of white closer to the martyr. The use of bright white light has a symbolic value as well: it can engage the thought of religious identity or theme of the painting, especially when seen in combination with the golden leaf around the central figure’s head.
All things considered, it is elements like nails, contrasting colors, 3-d modeling, and the act of hanging as the focal point that engage the viewer in the narrative of race. Nails symbolize pain, and hardships. The colors emphasize the centrality of the skin color in the composition. The golden halo complicates the identity further by brining in religion. Finally, the act of hanging makes one wonder about the executor, that is, the opposing figure to the identity of the central silhouette.
- “Blending Cultures: Alexis Peskine”. 2010. New Britain Museum Of American Art. https://nbmaa.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/blending-cultures-alexis-peskine/.
- “Contemporary Artwork, Classic Materials”. 2011. New Britain Museum of American Art. https://nbmaa.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/contemporary-artwork-classic-materials/.