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In days of old much of the world remained uncharted. Crude maps outlined crude continents and vast swathes of the planet were depicted as monstrous voids or voids filled with monsters. There were loathsome and deformed fish and winged dragons and, as Shakespeare noted in Othello: ‘And of the Cannibals that each other eat/ The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders’.
Such creatures have been shunted aside in an age of air travel and satellites, but their demise is far from complete, judging by Adam Boyd’s most recent exhibition ‘Eyes In Their Shoulders, Mouths In Their Chests’. Boyd and Shakespeare were not the first to identify these monstrous creatures, who also appear in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (drafted around 77 – 79AD) as the North African Blemmyae tribe, which he describes as having ‘no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts’. But despite his title, there are heads aplenty in Boyd’s show—distended heads, decapitated heads, tortured heads. Boyd’s subject here falls into a lineage that ranges from Caravaggio’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c.1607-10) through to Joel-Peter Witkin’s Head of Dead Man, Mexico (1990) to Mike Parr’s ongoing plethora of decapitated self-portraits.
Indeed, Boyd shares much in common with Parr’s feverish output and at times manic line-work. Boyd’s work is far more tentative than Parr’s bold strokes of charcoal and is executed in pencil and ink, giving his macabre visions a lightness of touch that belies their tortured content. Such works as Weal of content and Good humour could be late night doodles by Hieronymus Bosch, suggestive of both physical and psychological trauma. Indeed, Good humour has more than a hint of the medieval monstrous about it, replete with deformed skull and parchment, and again we may be reminded of Shakespeare as Hamlet lofts a skull and laments the loss of a man of ‘infinite jest’. The parchment in Boyd’s work may suggest knowledge, but the skull suggests a void, the simple fact that whatever knowledge we may attain goes the way of the worms, that for all our studies, it is all a source of humour and jest.
The exhibition was comprised of both massively scaled works alongside smaller, intimate sketches, all sharing a sense of restless urgency. Short words and hints of abbreviated language infested the surfaces, suggesting the immediacy of truncated messages. In specific works there are hints of globular torsos, recalling the twisted forms of Hans Bellmer. However the same images also hint at macabre landscapes populated by the damned.
That these works are imbued with surrealist impulses is beyond dispute and well articulated by Garth Hughes-Odgers in his excellent accompanying essay which recounts the famous meeting between Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud in which the famous doctor informed the infamous artist that his painting was far more about the ‘conscious’ than the supposed ‘unconscious’ he had theoretically sought.
For Hughes-Odgers, Boyd’s work: ‘recognises a tension inherent in our modern self-conception: a sense of ourselves as free agents who shape and are shaped by our culture and society, in contrast with an understanding that we are beings whose behavior is fundamentally bounded by biologically determined parameters’.
Such boundaries are without doubt questioned in Boyd’s work. In works like Funnel Vision his line loses any pretense of self determination, scratching and wheeling across the surface and eschewing any pretense of control. Such an obsessive approach may recall the approach of the ‘outsider’ artist Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), who spent much of his life locked in the Waldau Clinic, an asylum in Switzerland. His doctor, Walter Morgenthaler, recorded much of Wölfli’s creative activity, describing his obsession with drawing thus: ‘Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails.’
It is not hard to imagine Boyd doing something similar as he concocts these ‘maps’ and ‘portraits’. And when his pencils run out he turns to clay, illustrated in this show by the strangely haunting phalanx of barely sculpted heads in Silent Witnesses, a series of malformed, decapitated golems, stacked like skulls from the Killing Fields.
This is, in fact, Boyd’s first solo exhibition. Born in 1982, he graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2004 and has exhibited in a number of group shows since. But, despite odd moments of tentativeness, ‘Eyes In Their Shoulders, Mouths In Their Chests’ suggests the genesis of an artist who will be well worth noting as his strange world evolves.
Adam Boyd, 2015. From ‘Eyes In Their Shoulders, Mouths In Their Chests’, Strange Neighbour Gallery, 2015.