Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Introduction by A.D. Coleman
The term “disturbing” today serves as one of the secret trump cards of cultural criticism. Whereas “shocking” elicits barely stifled yawns and “provocative” and “thought-provoking” seem a bit twee, “disturbing” now strikes the perfect marketing note of sophisticated disengagement. Far from indicating actual discomfort, it instead advertises its user’s refined sensibilities (as in “I know this art will offend many, but I am well beyond their reactionary values and can enjoy it as an intellectual game.”) Not surprisingly, “disturbing” artworks usually operate as billboards for their own transgressiveness—Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (II), or Damien Hirst’s floating sheep in a museum case filled with formaldehyde.
Truly disturbing art—art that holds you in a space of simultaneous aesthetic pleasure and emotional or intellectual discomfort—is much less common. It usually invokes (as opposed to assaulting) everyday taboos: Sally Mann’s quasi-pornographic photography of her own children, Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits as cross-dressing historical figures. Kate Breakey’s book Small Deaths, which presents her gorgeously painted photographs of dead birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and flowers, fits this definition, although not without unintended consequence.
Besides raising almost Warholian questions about beauty and repetition and decontextualization in art, Breakey’s work does indeed delight the eye and turn the stomach simultaneously. But the delight—both visual and speculative—has its own shelf life, spoiling well before the last page. The most disturbing thing about Small Deaths is the way, in trying to restore individuality and a sort of life to little broken bodies, Breakey’s manipulations end up depersonalizing them.
Breakey, an Australian who moved to Texas in 1988 and now lives in Tucson, has been photographing dead things for well over a decade. She starts with found subjects, photographing them in close-up against neutral backgrounds with an extremely shallow depth of field. She then makes gelatin-silver prints of the negatives and enlarges these to nearly a yard square. Finally, Breakey hand-paints each enlargement with transparent oils and colored pencil, reintroducing much of the subject’s original coloration and then veering off into a subtle but intense expressionism of line and palette.
The result is a sort of taxidermy that, at least initially, has breathtaking emotional impact. You look immediately for markers of death, of course, and sometimes find them—a bird’s broken neck and empty eye sockets; a rodent’s jaws frozen in an open C-clamp of ferocity or pain, the dried skin flecking away. (More often—and more arrestingly—you’re given no obvious indicators, just a presumed docility of repose and, of course, the subject’s presence in the book.)
Almost immediately, though, Breakey’s art takes over. She lights her subjects from above or the side, as if they were undergoing a gentle examination in the afterlife. The backgrounds function as auras: Colored like bruises in purples, mauves, browns, and dull greens, they swirl and hum, the bodies’ soft edges bleeding into them as if life were leaching out into the ether. For the bodies themselves, her painting style swings from photorealism in the tight area of focus to a tremulous impressionism everywhere else.
The effect can be unabashedly spiritual. Breakey’s butterflies (particularly the Sleepy Orange Butterfly) are like escaping souls, all motion and light taking off into blackness. The transparent, apparitional Red Spotted Toad references the spirit photography of the 19th century, in which ghostly figures were superimposed on prints as evidence of the supernatural. Perhaps the most beautiful photograph here, Common Yellowthroat Warbler I, is unusually lit from below with a luminous gold, as if its expansive breast had captured a sunrise or a sunset. Just the leading edge of a wing and a few stray feathers are in focus, with the rest blurring into a Platonic ideal of a bird.
But Breakey also often adds a decidedly art-historical self-consciousness, treating her subjects so as to mimic a wide range of still-life and portrait approaches—realism, formalism, commentary, objectification, and deconstruction. Galah, a bird, could pass for a vain 17th-century baroness, with a huge ruff and a white cap of hair. House Sparrow I apes the New Yorker’s signature fop, Eustace Tilley. Purple Coneflower is a soft and sexy glamour shot, as if Breakey had Vaselined her lens. Cooper’s Hawk III looks down out of the frame beneficently, like a public statue of a civic father.
The photos seem unable to help but gather anthropomorphic overtones. Breakey plays with prejudices about certain animals—the toothy, grasping rodent, the downy and submissive finch, the sinister Common Raven, which is just shades of black welling up out of darkness, only its beak gleaming in the light like a blade. She also apparently has something against blue jays: Blue Jay II lies prone, beak open, clearly a murder victim, and Blue Jay I is just a severed, blackened head lying on its back, its tongue thrusting upward.
The lusciously colored flowers, their withered petals swept back like pageboy haircuts, convey an agreeably disheveled, after-hours feel. Even Northern Cardinal IV, one of the few entries so badly decayed as to be barely recognizable, has both a menacing and a touching quality. At its best, Small Deaths both elicits your emotional projections onto the rest of the living world and gives you back those projections for examination.
The problem with Breakey’s work, however, is apparent in her attempts at abstraction and fineness. In Bird I, for example, an unidentifiable victim with featherless wings like arms raised against attack and a beak wide with alarm, she still finds time to render the watery highlights on the figure’s back, as if there is no situation so appalling that it cannot accommodate a little technique. The painterliness of the brushwork and her too-careful balancing of colors cross over from homage to idealization and artistic imposition—perhaps an unavoidable transition, but once you spot it, you start to see it everywhere in Small Deaths. The style becomes monotonous, and it also makes you suspicious of Breakey’s claims to be merely conveying the inherent beauty of death.
Breakey also fails to relay important information on the actual subjects: where they were found, how they might have died, if they were once characters in someone’s life. Instead, she merely labels each photo with both the common and the Latin name of the subject’s species, as well as the year of completion. Perhaps she intended this as an ironic comment on the impersonality of taxonomy, but the gesture ends up reinforcing her subjects’ lack of individuality. Making art of the dead is not the same as putting a Brillo box on a pedestal. As you go deeper into the book, Breakey’s project comes to feel like exploitation—the “soft murder” of photography, as Susan Sontag once put it.
Small Deaths triangulates two important 19th-century popular-art achievements: the practice of photographing dead people (especially children, whose cheeks would then be hand-tinted pink), and the paintings of John James Audubon, who often killed his own subjects so that he could examine them closely and achieve a more lifelike effect. Yet it is also thoroughly a work of its time, an era in which celebrity autopsy photos are on the Web and we have too much trouble protecting our own privacy to worry about that of the departed. The dead always and instantly become objects, of scrutiny or sentimentality. Small Deaths, then, is in a way a book about ourselves—which explains why we cringe before turning each of its pages, and why we can’t stop turning them. CP