From Kouros sculptures to the late self-portraits of Picasso, when artists depict the very young or the very old, questions of intent and psychology always arise, grafting themselves to the work of art. Jason Bard Yarmosky turns the tables on the usual practice of showing the blossoming of youth or the dying embers of old age by combining the two in an oddly intriguing, though deeply unsettling way.
Yarmosky paints portraits of the elderly, with an eye to the vicissitudes of old age, yet dresses them up in attire reminiscent of the boxed Hallowe’en costumes of the Spider-Man variety. On the surface they appear to be riffing on the character of the creepy old neighbor on Family Guy, or, more sinisterly, John Wayne Gacy and his collection of clown costumes. Harmony Korine’s recent Trashhumpers is populated with a similar species -- young actors with the prosthetic makeup of old men, wiggling dildos and drooling onto their pajamas. Here, a football-helmeted codger cradles a scotch while standing in his boxers ("Tight End," 2011); in "Cowboy" (2011), a dark shadow obliterates the face of a potbellied man in a Stetson and vest.
There is a combination of innocence and perversity to these characters. They speak both to a sense of lost innocence and to the adult who wears the trappings of childish things in order to take innocence from the young. On a deeper, psychological level they might address questions of neoteny. Freud saw neoteny as important: the study of the undifferentiated organism, born with the potential of cognitive development, but lacking a full consciousness. Jung, too, spoke of the pure eternus, the boy/man: unacculturated, yet capable of feeling stigma. The little boy who refuses the passage into adulthood. Peter Pan.
While Balthus painted little Lolitas, ensconced in high-backed chairs with their knickers exposed, Yarmosky's girl/women tend toward an aging Amazonian type. "Ballerina" (2010) wears a Valkyrian helmet, "Princess" (2011) a set of Playboy bunny ears. With their sagging waddles and pendulous breasts they seem like haunted versions of some past life. No less ominous in their undertones, though. We are reminded of those characters in Red Dragon and The Dead Zone, the mothers who create the monsters. Psychopaths themselves, they castrate and humiliate, though somehow they never end up being the subjects of hilarious pedophile jokes on tv cartoons.
Somehow these reflections take us far too into the darkness. And if we are to believe Yarmosky (and we want to believe), these are images also reflecting the fleeting joys of life, the eternal childhood we all carry with us. We know better than to take the word of an artist at face value, but to not in this case would deny the odd beauty he depicts. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, "a scar is a memory stitched in flesh." And while not all our scars are on the outside, our lives are inscribed on our faces and flesh. That Yarmosky covers the roadmapped skin of his subjects with the trappings of youth may not be as insidious as it might seem. Merely a metaphor for our ceaseless, losing battle with time. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.