Jonathan Grossmalerman: How to Paint Death?

Avant-gardist Jonathan Grossmalerman, lately a painter of vaginas, now a peddler of skulls, from the May 2015 issue

By Jonathan Grossmalerman

Jonathan Grosmalerman, Fastidious, 2015, oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist

“Quiet, you blabbering dunderhead of death! Away with you, Thanatos! You insipid bureaucrat of mortality! And you, Abaddon, you bumbling ass! You, who cannot create, contrive only to destroy! No! Your meagre spittle shall not yet douse the blazing inferno in my loins. And your stench must content itself with loitering outside among the rabble, for my parlour is still pleasant with contemporary pop music and the perfume of youthful vaginas!”

I struggle with the heaving, grotesque spectre, his bony fingers clawing my shoulders as I tear at the heavy bone-black cloak that threatens to envelop me!

But what is this?? I hold no cloak!

It is but a sweat-soaked sheet that entangles me. And what talons are these that dig into my soft white shoulders but the simple fingers of my dull-witted studio assistant Neal! That idiot!!! Why is he screaming in that awful southern vernacular!? I can’t make head or tail of it! And why does he shake me so?

“Mr Grossmalerman! Wake up! Are you OK? I was just finishing these canvases when I heard the most harrowing cry from your room! I came in to find you struggling with your sheets in the grip of some sort of terrible dream!”

“I’m fine, Neal. Now go away!

“Good God, Mr Grossmalerman… how long have you been in here and why are you surrounded by all this drug paraphernalia??”

“Goddamn it, Neal! I said go away.” He stands up, walks towards the door, stops and turns around. “Well fuck you, too, Mr Grossmalerman!”

The door slams and once again I am alone with my thoughts, which I must admit have been wandering ever more towards contemplations of death. Ever since my ex-wife Sylvie exploded (ArtReview vol 64 no 6, September 2013), it has lurked. To have one’s life cut so short, so suddenly and with such hilarious consequences is just… well, it’s just too much for me to bear. Perhaps it is time I stopped painting vaginas, faced this fear head-on and wrestled with the emperor of all subject matter. ‘But how?’ you ask…

By painting a painting about death. That’s how.

That’s impossible, you say? Well, perhaps it won’t be easy, but goddamn it! What worthwhile endeavour is ever easy!? I ask you!

Let’s see… a painting about death… a painting about death… there must be some agreed-upon visual language for this sort of thing… Has no one ever painted a painting about death before? Good lord, am I once again at the forefront of some hideous new vanguard!?

Well, then I accept the challenge!

I suppose I could simply paint a dead person… although, I mean, it might be hard to tell whether they’re dead or not, you know… visually speaking. A dead person can often be mistaken for someone who’s simply sleeping. Well, for a little while at least. No. This will only lead to frustration.

Hmmmm… how about painting a skull? Yes! A skull is pretty direct and clear. I mean, I can’t think of anything else a skull might bring to mind than death. Besides, of course, pirates.

Uh-oh! That could be a problem. This painting is really and absolutely not going to be about pirates. Pirates are exciting and adventurous, whereas this painting will be about pretty much the most solemn and depressing thing a painting could possibly be about.

But I’m not giving up without a fight.

How about an image of a recently snuffed-out candle? You know, to symbolise life’s brief and fragile nature! There could even be a little windy vapour of smoke rising from it! Oh, who am I kidding! No one will get that. They’ll just think it’s a boring old painting of a stupid candle.

Rotting fruit? Flies? A clock? All too vague.

Goddamn it to hell! This is turning out to be harder than I thought.

Wait a second! I know! What if I turn it around completely and paint something so much the opposite of death that all anyone can think of when they see it is… death? You know, like how when you see a toddler walking down the street and all you can think about is tripping it? Yes… I might be on to something. But what is the opposite of death? Birth? Flowers? Life? Flesh? Beating hearts? Fucking… titties and pink vaginas? Pink vaginas!?

Oh, my God!!… Does that mean that… this whole time… I’ve been painting about… death!!!??? All I’ve ever painted about is death? I’m already a death painter!? That’s terrible…

Fuck it, I give up. I’m going with the skull thing.

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue.