“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,
and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
Myths, Art, and the Shivers
Dave McKean, creator of the most beautiful terror, knows no limits. Perhaps because his imagination appears to be similarly boundless. McKean stretches out all of his abilities to places other authors cannot reach, and if someone tells him the most powerful, dramatic tale, he reconstructs a higher image, one even more thrilling than the first author could have possibly envisaged. His work is a bestiary of visual poetry, an anthology of passions and feelings, of vices and virtues born of a frantic turmoil, creating multiple scenes and characters, a kind of creation through addition, increasing with materials the meaning of images in a process that results in rich works, luscious in their textures and composition, which feed into our emotions.
Throughout history, humanity has sought to resolve the mysteries of life and shed light on the unknown, but sometimes there is neither enlightenment nor discovery, only darkness and a struggle with logic that turns existence into anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. The extraordinary and the monstrous have been present since the dawn of human existence. Mysteries have been fuelled since our most primitive times by a contradictory need to surrender to them and exorcise the incomprehensible. Songs, tales, paintings, and dramatic recreations have perpetuated the most irrational myths and stories of all time. It is unsurprising therefore, that the first filmic representations of mystery and terror were known as Phantasmagoria. All this tradition roams freely and inhabits the creations of Dave McKean.
As if our darkest myths were his home ground, he enjoys ripping them open and recreating them, and that is why the pieces included in this exhibition, Nitrate, take us on a journey through the most disturbing art inspired by the dark stories of silent cinema. His unmistakable personal style is rooted directly in the expressionist aesthetic, in its dark tales and spine-chilling characters, half-beings, scraps of creatures screwed, glued or sewn together, following the trail of the early filmmakers, marked by the legacy of shadow theatre, with its projected solid shapes and powerful blinding chiaroscuro that left us dazzled and dazed. Like them, McKean composes his works by playing and experimenting with emotions, building pieces that unhinge the senses and fuel fears by enveloping the observer in an exquisite form of suffering.
Nitrate is an anarchical collection in which the artist has generated an extreme category of beings, the absolute hyperbole of their cinematographic references, creating a new skin for these characters and fictions, which he drapes over their bodies and stretches out across his scenes. This new graphic and visual style that the artist builds is a refined and sophisticated reinterpretation that mocks our gaze with its multiple forms, hidden drawings, and overlapping tangled lines conceived by sifting through the old avant-garde, sustaining the emotional subjectivity of the disturbing and suspenseful.
Although he plays with composition/decomposition, McKean is generous and honest with his references. He is explicit about the themes represented, keeping the titles of the films and the name of the directors. He does not want to break away from the previous fantasy, but to bring new stories to life through his drawings, together with reconstructed characters from which hybrid creatures emerge, laden with symbolism and messages, just as each piece concentrates overlapping techniques, strokes, blotches, and marks that add meaning and interpretations. Artistic creations that do not escape the semantic richness of advertising posters or graphic design and which expose the very nature of a language and a profession the artist has not left behind and which he has mastered entirely.
His works present a rich and free palette, as befits a true master of technique, seasoned in the art of collage and body language, with avant-garde geometries and aboriginal stylisations, a wonderful compendium of artistic, cinematographic and design knowledge, harnessed to narration and synthesis. Some pieces appear to be sewn, hooked, glued, even battered, giving them a hardness that enriches the subject portrayed; and his drawings, monochrome and apparently simpler and purer, contain the intense strokes of a brush that hits the paper and completes these hard forms, giving the impression they were imprinted by a wooden stamp carved by an ancestral artist. There is a febrile and primal sense of spontaneity, that of one who knows, who studies, who has questioned the styles and has decided to dismantle them, cite them or save them on a whim, imprinting upon all of them a gestural and emotional intensity that captivates the viewer from the very first glance.
Dave McKean’s artistic wisdom flows out beyond our visual field. If we could just fix our gaze on the pictures alone, we could remain calm; the extraordinary thing is that those visions force us to shift our gaze and glance out of the corner of our eye to spot an intangible form we think we have seen, wandering around us, just before the shiver runs down our spine.
Dave McKean talks to us
The artist tells us about his beginnings in the art world, reviews the Nitrate exhibition and talks about his relationship with art galleries.