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What Artwork Makes a Lasting Impression on You?
American art critic and historian Donald Kuspit delves into one particular body of work from photographer Lynn Stern that has left a lasting impression on him and the many whys behind the connection.
Beauty and Import
Relentlessly focusing on the skull, as an abstract thing in itself as well as a memento mori, Lynn Stern’s impressive photographs of skulls remind us of its absurd beauty and ominous import.
She fearlessly looks into its hollow eyes and caresses its firm surface, absorbed in the dialectic of its concaves and convexities, even as she reminds us that the skull is the most lasting part of our bodies, the ironical durability of its bones conveyed by the fact that they remain intact even as they are veiled, making the skull seductive.
Covered with scrim — a semi-transparent shroud, as it were — and lighting it in various ways, and sometimes elevating it on a pedestal, as though it was a sculptural idol to be worshiped, if also a performer in theatrical space, Stern shows her obsessive fascination with light and shadow, their subtle changing interplay the expressive and aesthetic substance of the photograph.
Half in Love
However artfully staged, and however much we know there is no life in them, Stern’s skulls — some human, some animal — bristle with raw power and inner life. They are aggressively in your face, reminding you that it masks a skull — the death within us.
Stern may be half in love with death, but her aggressive manipulation of it suggests she also hates it. She acknowledges its hold on her, even as she defends against it by aestheticizing it.
Freud said we cannot imagine our own deaths — there is no death in the unconscious. But Stern comes close to doing so, as the photographs in which her face as death mask and paired with a skull suggest.
She is certainly in touch with her unconscious, reminding us of Jung’s remark that there is no greater sin than unconsciousness: She is certainly conscious of death, taking possession of it as though it were her bosom buddy.
No Two Alike
There is nothing like Stern’s skull photographs — hundreds of them, in seven series, made over two decades — in the history of photography (or painting). They are a major achievement. Each and every one of them making a lasting impression on us, if only because they remind us that death is omnipresent in the world.
Death, always triumphant, as the fact that the 20th century produced more deaths by “human decision,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawn put it, than any other century indicates. That, perhaps, is the most lasting impression of all.
Donald Kuspit is a distinguished American art critic and historian. The author of several groundbreaking treatises on modern art and the avant-garde, he is also a notable poet and professor of art history and philosophy.