"Vanitas" Exhibition Explores Love and Death at Phoenix Art Museum

Joel-Peter Witkin Teatro di Morte (Threatre of Death), 1989 gelatin silver print-toned Overall: 20 x 16 in (50.8 x 40.6 cm) Collection Stéphane Janssen
Joel-Peter Witkin Teatro di Morte (Threatre of Death), 1989 gelatin silver print-toned Overall: 20 x 16 in (50.8 x 40.6 cm) Collection Stéphane Janssen
Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

We're fortunate in metro Phoenix to feel the rich influence of Latin arts and culture not only during Dia de los Muertos celebrations, but year-round as well. Local artists including Lalo Cota infuse their work with skulls and other familiar symbols for death.

In a world divided by geography and ideology, our only commonality is the certainty of death. It's a shared human experience reflected in artworks dubbed "vanitas," a Latin term translated as "vanity." The genre has special appeal for Belgian art collector Stéphane Janssen, who lives in Arizona.

His gifts to the Phoenix Art Museum and ASU Art Museum, which are substantial, include Viola Frey's glazed ceramic "Nude Man" sculpture. It sits near the stairwell you'll descend to explore Phoenix Art Museum's new exhibition titled "Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections on Love & Death from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen."

See also: 10 Must-See Art Exhibitions in Metro Phoenix This Fall

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The exhibition is housed in galleries on the lowest level, a space some visitors never explore because they don't know it's there. New directional text tastefully installed on museum walls aims to change that, helping visitors whose eyes glaze over looking at museum maps to negotiate their way through the museum's many nooks and crannies.

You'll encounter several works from the "Vanitas" exhbiit in other spaces. Look for Bob Haozous' carved stone and cast steel Love/Death skull in a space just off the museum's sculpture garden, and Luis Jiménez's painted fiberglass Death Masks with a sexualized storm trooper vibe as you descend stairs leading to the exhibition.

"Vanitas" includes 74 works spanning a broad range of media and subjects related to life, death, and love -- including addiction and exploitation. Most are contemporary pieces by American, European, and Latin American artists. Their common thread is Janssen's aesthetic, informed by art encounters and autobiography.

Janssen frequented museums as a child and purchased his first work of art, a piece by Spanish painter Oscar Dominguez, when he was 16-years-old. He was steeped in vanitas imagery during an six-month stay in Mexico, but Janssen's close encounters with death moved from conceptual to concrete when his longtime romantic partner, American ceramist R. Michael Johns, was diagnosed HIV positive, then with AIDS. Two works by Johns, who died in 1993, are included in this exhibition.


Several large-scale works, including Jean-Baptiste Huynh's black-and-white photograph Children's Skulls and Damien Deroubaix's two-panel engraved and painted wood The First Trumpet, dominate the gallery space. So too does Karel Appel's Running Through, an oil on canvas diptych depicting the pope rushing through a skeleton-laden concentration camp, and Lucien Murat's woven and painted tapestry D.E.A.T.H.

Works distinguished by medium include Carved Skull from Naga, an anonymous piece carved from an elephant's hip bone, and Valentin Souquet's Macabre Dance triptych, drawn with wood burning tool on stretched carpet. The exhibition's oldest piece is Goddess Chamundi, an anonymous Beige Sandstone work from 10th century Central India or Rajasthan.

Those who've seen Robert Arneson ceramic works at Phoenix Art Museum or ASU Art Museum, which presented a 2003 exhibition featuring works from Janssen's collection, will appreciate seeing Arneson's mixed media on paper Peace. Folks who dig tattoo art may gravitate towards Wim Delvoye's untitled preparatory drawing for tattoo.

Art aficionados will see some familiar faces in "Vanitas," which includes Judy Linn's silver gelatin print Robert Mapplethorpe in Bed at the Chelsea #2 and Mapplethorpe's 1988 platinum print Self-Portrait in which the artist grips a skull-topped staff. Richard Avedon's silver gelatin print triptych Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, New York City, October 30, 1969 is one of several works depicting nude subjects.

Janssen's own nude form, covered with a full length veil, is featured in one of three Brussells, Skull C-prints by Spencer Tunick, best known of late for photographing nude figures en masse. "Vanitas" also includes Christian Courreges' 1999 Portrait of Stéphane Janssen. For that, the collector dons a blazer and sits with a skull.


Ten works by Joel-Peter Witkin, one of America's most controversial contemporary photographers, are the exhibition's pièce de résistance. They're a skillful mash-up of art history, humor, and the macabre. Many, including Retablo, New Mexico included in "Vanitas," blend religious iconography with images of outsiders. Those considered deformed, sexually deviant, or otherwise odd in mainstream culture hold great beauty for this artist.

Witkin works featured in "Vanitas" reflect his fondness for setting severed heads, body parts and skulls in captivating tableaux that simultaneously lure and repel those who view them. "Vanitas" includes one of Witkin's most controversial works, in which two halves of a severed head are positioned to look like two men sharing a passionate kiss. If death was a circus, Witkin would be the irresistible side show.

It's fun to bounce through "Vanitas" like a kid sampling one piece from every jar in the candy story, but more lovely to linger. The more time you spend with these works, the more their vivid imagery rooted in our common humanity will move you.

We picked up a brochure-style publication for "Vanitas," which includes 15 images and a list of works, during the media preview. Text by Marilyn Zeitlin, an author and friend of Janssen's who formerly headed the ASU Art Museum, is illuminating. Snag one if you can.

"Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections on Love & Death from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen" continues through February 8, 2015. The exhibition is included with museum admission. For more information, visit www.phxart.org.

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