Becoming a Ghost
April 5 – May 5, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, April, 2018
"Ghosts used to be either the likeness of the dead or wraiths of the living. But here in the Zone categories have been blurred badly. The status of the name you miss, love, and search for now has grown ambiguous and remote, but this is even more than the bureaucracy of mass absence- some still live, some have died, but many, many have forgotten which they are. Their likenesses will not serve. Down here are only wrappings left in the light, in the dark: images of the Uncertainty. . ."
-- Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”
Dan Seagrave’s harrowing vision of torn ghosts astride a shadowy in-between world has a wonderfully inflective touch. He does not stint on the most intricate detail of figural development or elaboration of backdrop space. A head is a cradle of atavistic markings, impossible cravings, a lost soul or restless demon, an apparition in noumenal space. The postural models for his figures are always achingly true. The figures are more about figural morphologies than anything like verisimilitude. Their faces betray an advanced stage of leprosy, their ligatures seem to be rotting or melting, in a state of necrotic transformation, locked into an airtight boneyard of the fallen world.
A delicate palette redeems the stench of the charnel house, the ossuary. It spans deep umbers, ochres and blacks and seductive tinges of magenta and mauve. The fluidity of the acrylic paint application is breathtakingly pristine from the final coat and on down through the microstructures. Seagrave paints like an angel, maybe a fallen angel (yes, one right out of Revelations 9:11), but an angel nonetheless.
The ravaged ghosts that populate these paintings generate atavisms that are dark, agonised and agonistic, voluptuous and hugely tactual in their mien. In the largest painting in the show, To Go Where Proverbs Die(40 x 60”), we are confronted with what we fancy is Francis Bacon’s colossal face looming out of his detritus-strewn studio with a torqued expression, as though his head has been screwed on too tight, and a profane slant of swollen deformity with no hint of probity, as though possessed by wayward spirits of his own several decompositions.
Seagrave cites Max Ernst, Casper David Friedrich, Piranesi, Turner, William Blake, Ivan Albright, HR Giger, Henry Fusilli, Henry Moore, Frida Kahlo, van Gogh. Albrecht Durer as being major influences. It’s an eloquent hit parade to which we might add fellow travellers Goya, Redon, Jan Luyken, and our own maverick Marion Wagschal whose delicacy in working backdrop and foreground in micro-detail finds an aspiring dialogical partner here.
Elsewhere, we glimpse the head of an entity that reminds us of Odilon Redon’s Cactus Man (1882). We recall scenes from the Resident Evil film franchise and imagined ones from Samuel Beckett’s haunting short story "The Lost Ones," which tells of a group of people doomed to wander forever inside a narrow cylindrical prison. The figures in Seagrave’s paintings are posthuman and the landscapes they inhabit are post-apocalyptic.
In Seagrave’s feverish Night Land, monstrous entities besiege an indeterminate future tense as though they are just now getting their groove on. As Peter Ackroyd wrote in Hawksmoor: “This mundus tenebrosus, this shaddowy world of Mankind, is sunk into Night; there is not a Field without its Spirits, nor a City without its Daemons, and the Lunaticks speak Prophesies while the Wise men fall into the Pitte.”  Spirits, demons and lunatics all appear and party down in Seagrave’s paintings.
The figures here seen to have wandered out of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) less in terms of overt special-effect imagery than in unwholesome/unholy tenor – that of mind bending anxiousfrisson --- and, as the light falters, a sense of impending doom prevails. A sense of the principle of Uncertainty Pynchon spoke of abides in and pervades them.
Seagrave convinces us he is a student of the literature of Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Auster (In The Country of Last Things, 1987) Beckett and Celine, and his paintings also share a familial aura with the noirs of Redon and the nightmarish umbilical worlds of H.R, Giger. But there are no enervating echoes at play.
Seagrave broaches the subject matter of the ‘abject’ here with thematic integrity. Abjection literally means ‘the state of being cast off’ and his figures seem to exist ‘outside’ or ‘cast off’ even as they shed fragments of their own flesh.
In her seminal 1980 book Powers of Horror French psychoanalyst and semiotician Julia Kristeva develops the idea of the abject as a complex and tiered psychological, philosophical and linguistic concept. Operating under the divine influence of Georges Bataille, Kristeva famously said: ‘”There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.” Seagrave invokes impure and unassimilable aspects of the body and its morphologies on the outside of thought.
Seagrave owns these ‘portraits’ as surely as though they had been fashioned from his own bile, feces and bone marrow, and they don’t trade on supernatural truisms or death metal tropes. While it’s true that he has gained an enviable reputation as the author of genuinely iconic album art for sundry Death Metal musicians in the early nineties and subsequent work in the same vein executed since 2000 (consider the eerie splendour of his cover art for PESTILENCE: "Testimony Of The Ancients") the work exhibited here is non-illustrative, more deeply personal and, however sophisticated its technical licks, wildly visionary -- and nothing short of profound. WM
1. Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985).
2. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection Translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.