Nightmare Royale #14: The Art that Comes From Pain (On Lost Heroes, the Spark, And the Face in the Dark)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
I spent last Sunday afternoon at the Hyaena Art Gallery in Burbank – a favorite place, for any occasion – at the behest of my good friend Brian Bubonic, who had an artist he wanted me to meet. A young Ukrainian named Krawczyk Stanislav was in town, blessedly far from his war-ravaged home. His preferred medium is ball point pen on paper. Here’s a small sampling of his work.
These digital reproductions catch much of his work’s strange beauty and power. But there’s no substitute for sitting with the actual art in hand, seeing where the intensity in his jagged lines actually strained and sometimes tore through the paper. You can feel the anger, the sorrow, the loss and pain and fear radiate up at you through those lines. It is physicalized emotion.
Not surprisingly, many of the images are of corpses. Dead babies. Bodies flat or slightly curled in the pugilist’s stance, as one often does when burned to death. Ghosts, vampires, and demons are natural extensions of the real horror, myth layered on not to sweeten or soften the blow, but to deepen its grip on the imagination and spirit. (Not surprising that Clive Barker is a hero, and that much of Stan’s time spent suffering in hospitals was alleviated by his mother sharing her love of horror films.)
The most alarming thing about sitting down with Stanislav’s art – eight packed folios, which I combed through repeatedly – was the way form almost seems to float up from chaos. Many of his subjects have no face, or almost none. Sometimes, it’s because their face was blown off. But more often, it’s because their face was swallowed by the blackness within. Despair. Corruption. Hopelessness. Doom. And pain pain pain pain pain.
So we sat there together for 90 minutes, talking as I took it all in. He’s very sweet, very sharp, with a remarkably young face and a damn fine command of the English language. (Way the fuck better than my Ukrainian!) He also has advanced Keratoconus, an eye condition that wildly distorts his vision, makes direct sunlight blinding, excruciating, intolerable. And, oh yeah, he also has Cerebral Palsy.
These two factors are unquestionably part of the tool kit he draws from, part of what make Stan and his art unique. But they don’t explain his talent, his passion or commitment. Lots of people have terrifying, painful disabilities. But very few of them can draw like that.
I came away from the meeting impressed and inspired, knowing I wanted to write about him, but not sure exactly what to say.
Then Robin Williams killed himself.
And in the vast wave of heartbreaking loss/sorrow/pain that washed over western civilization, a couple of things became clear.
1) When a luminous spirit like Williams – who worked so hard, so long, to bring laughter and light to our long-suffering planet, becoming in the process a relentless cheerleader for everything remotely worthwhile about the human race – when a guy like that suddenly checks himself out of the game, it is a walloping blow for the team. It makes the walls of hope shudder, puts cracks in the ceiling of faith. It fucking hurts, is what it does.
Depression is one thing – one big, horrible thing – but then there’s ultimate despair: the conviction that this torment will never end, a hopelessness so complete that no way out exists but death.
I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide and other, slower forms of self-destruction: some very good ones, very recently. Some completely blind-side you; others you can see coming a mile away. But the ones that hurt the worst for me are the ones where you know that they really, really tried. They gave it everything they had. And then it just became too much.
For many of us, we fight the darkness with our art. It gives us a place to put that shit. We can wrestle it, dance with it, do our best to come to terms with it. We can shine our light on it, laugh in its face, hug it, fuck it, or stomp it into dust. Conversely, we can helplessly writhe at its mercy, or absence thereof, as it kicks the living shit out of us. Tries to snuff out our light. And all too often succeeds.
But if we confront it honestly, devoutly, using every tool at our disposal, the most astonishing works of art and imagination can erupt from that black hole. All our demons. All our angels. Every stake to eternity we claim. All playing on the molten glass mirrors of our souls that we create.
This is a magic we’ve been given. How we fight. How we pray. How we hang in, when all else seems lost.
So when I think about a person like Robin Williams – a radiant beacon with so much crushing darkness packed inside him – it seems like a miracle of pure stubborn love that he stuck around 63 years, and gave us soooooo much. (I’m gonna pick his first HBO special, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE FISHER KING, and WORLD’S GREATEST DAD as the ones that marked me hardest. You’ll doubtless have your own.) But flat out: we are sooooo lucky to have had him so long.
Now he’s gone back to Universe, God, whatever you wanna call it. The well from which he sprang, and from which All-That-Is springs. If energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only changed in shape, then that beautiful spark he lit our world with has gone off to brighten some other corner of infinity. Hopefully, a place happier (and, if possible, even funnier) than here.
Meanwhile, we are left with the sparks we have. We are surrounded by them. One in each and every heart. Some let them go out before they even get started. Some have theirs extinguished by cruel circumstance. Almost all of them – fuck that, ALL of them – will be assailed by the darkness without and within, that swirls through the fabric of this world, and this life.
For some, that spark becomes a torch: a way to peel back the shadows, connect with a larger light. For others, it’s a different, darker path.
But if there’s one thing I know, we are all in this together. Most likely forever.
Which brings me back to Krawczyk Stanislav, and the beginning of this story.
2) When I held his pictures in my hands, I felt his pain rush up at me like heat from a fire. It was all there, in every jagged rake of his humble Bic pen, like a thunderous drumbeat on stretched human skin, fiercely played with the bones of the broken.
And I thought, this is what the darkness looks and feels like.
Call it depression. Call it a natural response to the horror of our world, as personalized by one living, all-too-aware human being who knows for a fact what suffering is. Call it abomination. Call it whatever the fuck you want.
What I saw was the work of a genuine artist, fiercely keeping his spark alive by chronicling every flicker-flash of darkness his bold torch could reveal.
That’s when I understood why Brian Bubonic wanted me to meet him.
That’s when I fell in love with the guy.
And that’s why horror, as an art form, matters. Why it’s not just a cheap thrills sideshow for sick fucks who just wanna watch people die and kill. The darkness we live in is so dark, SO deep, that it can even take out guys like Robin Williams.
To know you’re not alone in this is one of the deepest, finest gifts we can give each other.
From there, the laughter is glorious gravy. Lightening our burden.
As we move, inexorably, through the infinite darkness and light.
Toward wherever this is going.
So, baby, keep your torch alive.
For more information on Robin Williams, look anywhere on Earth. For more information on Stanislav, or to buy his art, check out:
Stanislav’s Big Cartel.
And also, in closing: I love you.
Yer pal in the trenches,