After empire peaks, it begins its descent, deftly illustrating the principle of Newton’s Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is this very reversal that makes it so difficult to grasp when one is witnessing it from the inside looking out rather than they other way around.
It is here in the fog of chaos that artists may act as guides. Their intuitive need to explore and express that which is a blessing and a curse illuminates the darkness that obfuscates our view. Once rendered, their work provides both context and subtext that we may use to chart our path into the unknown by providing us a quiet space to contemplate how the present has come to pass.
Growing up in a small town in Washington, American artist Jake Scharbach developed an early connection to nature that informed his ongoing suspicions of civilization, one that has served him well in his quest to wrestle with the ineffable and give it voice. Coupled with an intimate experience of community and unconditional relationships, Scharbach cultivates a language of symbols and signs rooted in Western ideals to analyze contemporary cultural values.
“I try to confront the civic intention behind classical art while defining an imagery of modern icons to talk about the failures and fictions of our society,” Scharbach writes in his artist statement.
Scharbach “remixes” masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo sculptures from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, masks from Zambia, Alaska, and Indonesia, and African, Arabian, Aztec, and Navajo patterns, and photographs used for reportage, editorial, and advertising to expose a harrowing emptiness that haunts modern life, one we aim to fill with wealth, status, power, objects, and experiences It’s a void that can never be filled through acquisition, but rather one that can only be exposed in an effort to dismantle the paradigms that have brought about so much harm.
"We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only one kind, what would he have to say?” Scharbach quotes from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais 1580.
The text accompanies his 2020 work Nature Morte, which shows A Vase of Flowers, a 1716 oil on canvas painting by Margareta Haverman blooming above a 2016 photograph of a plume of flames cascading out a police car set ablaze during a demonstration against police violence in Paris. It’s a stunning image of life and death, beauty and destruction, privilege and oppression — opposites that appear to represent unresolvable conflict, when they may simply be evidence that the paradigm by which we view naturally occurring pairs is flawed.
In the West, paradox becomes the centerpiece of thought, a hopeless situation that we can never surmount — a template for failure that has rendered Sisyphus the consummate antihero of our time. Taking Titian’s 1548 oil on canvas painting Sisyphus as the basis for a new work, Scharbach creates the 2020 version of the fabled The Myth of Sisyphus. Here we see the King of Corinth cast down to Hades cast in his own private Groundhog’s Day, heaving a boulder over his shoulder as he climbs a hill of debris, the crowns and trophies of history strew like yesterday’s trash in never ending landfill of human achievement.
In Shopping Descartes (2020), Scharbach takes the lower half of Franz Hals’s seventeenth-century oil painting of French philosopher Rene Descartes and tops it with a black plastic shopping bag from Brooklyn, where the artist currently lives, which joyously proclaims, “Thank You for Shopping Here!” in a 1970s-stye font.
“Descartes was the father of western dualist thought, the separation of mind from body and therefore man from nature,” Scharbach writes. “He conceived the natural world as mere material devoid of intrinsic value. He believed animals were simply machines made out of meat, incapable of feeling, without souls. To prove his point, he vivisected dogs while they were alive to demonstrate that they only had an automatic reflex that mimicked pain. As a founder of the Enlightenment that shaped a conception of ourselves as superior to the natural world: Rene Descartes, thank you for shopping here.”
By relating the present to the past, Scharbach makes it clear that we did not end up in 2020 by mere happenstance. Though much of Western cultural thought is irrational, twisted up in dazzling feats of logical fallacy, Scharbach’s work reveals that for every effect there is a revelatory cause that has created a disastrous pattern of thought, action, and belief. As America begins its less-than dazzling descent from the pinnacle of dominion, a new age unfolds, one that gives birth to art at the end of empire — and hopefully a better world.
Miss Rosen for Jacques Marie Mage
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