Paul Brainard’s My Body is a Grave

October 17

Walking up to the brick façade of an industrial NYC building, the rumble of a freight elevator vibrates through the entrance until it creeeeeaks to a halt on street level.  The gate lifts.  Paul Brainard pushes one foot down onto the bottom half of the freight elevator door so I can climb inside.  Genial and quick, he leads me through a warren of artists’ studios, every space is spilling over with the alchemical instruments of the artist: tools, canvases, and paint.  Nestled against a large window is Paul’s studio with a drawing table and painting shelf.  After a few pleasantries, he reaches into a plywood painting rack and rotates with a golden frame that catches the evening light in a bloom of yellow.  The drawing inside is so thick with gunmetal tone graphite it hardly resembles paper.  Underneath glass, some images are suspended like intricate seahorses, in a thought-space, thick and transparent, like gelatin.  Other images appear to dance languidly on the metallic ground. Paul talks briefly, painfully, about how both his parents passed away this year.  He shows me a tattoo on his arm from an old New England gravestone rubbing.  Everything, the language, people in his life, and images in his drawings, are appearing and receding like a tide.  Paul addresses this topic we all eventually face with a solo show, My body is a grave, opening October 6th at the Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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I want to try and link Paul’s art to contemporaneous philosophy and art history.  Primarily through the writing of thoughtful people: the art historians Caroline Walker Bynum and Georges Didi-Huberman, the historian Charles Freeman, and the philosopher Martin Seel.  Let me begin with the philosopher Martin Seel, in his book The Aesthetics of Appearing, he describes three forms of appearing: mere appearing, atmospheric appearing, and artistic appearing.  Mere appearing is noticing an object through your sense of sight.  Atmospheric appearing is when you notice something through your sense of sight, but the object goes beyond mere appearing by being a catalyst for further thoughts and memories.  Artistic appearing is when an object is crafted in order to appear.  Seel writes: “Artworks differ in principle from other objects of appearing by virtue of their being presentations.” (95)

Paul talks about his parents, and how they took him to see a Kiss concert when he was 8 and the film Alien when he was 10, and, at the same time, were Catholic.  His describes his parents as liberal Catholics who were fans of his art, and that despite Paul’s images being a bombardment of pornography and death, they were always interested in and proactive in responding to his work.  Paul’s father was a professor of chemical engineering, and would send Paul books about ecological and scientific crises.  There are three things which emerge from this brief family history: pop culture, religion, and warnings about the future.


The largest drawing in the show shares the name of the exhibition, My Body is a Grave, and is rich with references to Paul’s oeuvre and art history.  Along the bottom of the drawing is a dual-corpse with a dead body and a semi-decomposed portrait beginning to sit up, apparently from the same person.  It is a self-portrait.  The left arm points towards a small old-fashioned photo of Paul’s father.  This type of double image dates back to the middle ages, and, in particular, this drawing reminds me of the Transi Tomb of Henry Chichele.  Chichele was a 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury who briefly appears in Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Panofsky called Chichele’s tomb a “double-decker tomb,” because it is two tombs.  The tomb has two reclining statues: below, a desiccated corpse; above, a resplendently clothed man with open eyes.  This type of art combines the physical decay of death, the rotting corpse, with the lasting effects of a person’s life, the resplendent robes signifying achievement and status.

The top center of My Body is a Grave has the words Toten Uber Alles, which is German for ‘Death Above All.’  The Transi Tomb has this text written in the area between the two bodies:

“Pauper eram natus, post Primas hic elevates

Iam sum prostrates et vermibus esca paratus

Ecce meum tumulum.

Quisquis eris qui transieris rogo memoreris

Tu quod eris mihi consimilis qui post morieris

Omnibus horribili, pulvis, vermis, caro vilis.


Above the head of the resplendently clothed Archbishop is the following inscription:


Etus sanctorum concorditer iste precetur

Ut Dues ipsorum meritis sibi propitietur.


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This Latin inscription translates to “I was a pauper born, then to Primate raised/Now I am cut down and ready to be food for worms/Behold my grave./Whoever you may be who passes by, I ask you to remember/You will be like me after you die;/All horrible, dust, worms, vile flesh.”  The inscription above the head translates to: “May this gathering of the saints pray in harmony/That God may be propitious towards their merits.”  The Latin comes from this source: Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973) 15-16.

In Paul’s drawing, the double body is surrounded by skulls, one skeleton, three nude women, a dog, Rudy Giuliani, the ‘see something say something’ NYC subway ad guy, the photograph of Paul’s deceased father, and a child – and the corpse comes back to life.  If we are dealing with medieval Christian art, like the Transi Tomb, then this relates to the sacredness of the body.  If we are dealing with 21st century pop culture, then this body is a zombie bombarded by our chaotic culture.  A zombie is a monster that refuses to die, and who eats brains – the ability to think; essentially the opposite of a graceful passing.  Paul addresses this type of collapsing symbolic structure on his website, writing “Time is compressed; forms overlap and eradicate one another.”


Here is a weird etymological coincidence.  I learned about this through the art historian Georges Didi-Huberman.  1. Paul’s father sent him books warning about ecological disaster.  2. Paul’s work is full of bodies that can easily flip between religious symbols and pop culture monsters. Latin for ‘to warn’ is moneo.  Moneo is listed in some sources as the origin of the latin words monstrum and monstrare.  Monstrum means both omen and monster.  Monstrare means to show.  Monstrance, a modernization of monstrare, is the word Catholics use for the sculpture that holds the Eucharist or a relic – to display the sacred body.  The words which means to warn, to show, and monster are linked in ancient language.  Can it be a coincidence that these three themes populate Paul Brainard’s work?

In the beginning of this essay I told you I would link Paul’s work to contemporary philosophy and art history, and, to that end, presented Martin Seel’s definition of artistic appearing – something crafted as a presentation.  Seel’s definition is potentially the driest definition of art in existence.  Looking briefly at Paul’s family and work, we found an etymological coincidence, linking these four concepts: showing, omens, warnings, and monsters.  Paul talks about collapsing symbolic structure, and if you collapse showing, omens, warnings, and monsters – you get an idea very close to Seel’s idea of artistic appearing.

Let’s flesh this out a little.  If a zombie is a permanently rotting body, essentially similar to the art historical transi sculpture, and we also recognize that within the same image we can have the sacred representation of life, then we are walking into a debate that is hundreds of years old and is still intellectually raging today.  The sacred body enters in academic culture through philosophers like Giorgio Amgaben’s Homo Sacer, and into moral political culture through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. If we keep in mind both the profane rotting corpse and the sacred memory of life, we can learn something from art history.  Caroline Walker Bynum, an art historian at Princeton, wrote this about 15th century British transi tombs: “In contrast to the reliquaries, which both sublimate and reveal the object within, unveiling its decay-resistance as bone or wood yet lifting it to immortal life through gold or crystal, other medieval sculpture is obsessed with displaying not just death but also the decay that reliquaries resist.  This quite common motif of the transi tomb (a sculpture which is decaying, worm-eaten corpse lies beneath a gorgeously clothed member of the elite, represented more as sleeping than as dead) uses the stone from which it is carved to image slimy, percolating flesh…  (As opposed to reliquaries)…the lower part of the transi tomb are almost always naked stone; it is as if the transformation works the other way.  Putrefaction is not just imaged; it is not just emphasized; it is made permanent.  In the transi tomb, it is the clothes above (elegant and ordered) that deny decay, but below, the body seems (oxymoronically) frozen in its character as decayable and decaying.” Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: As Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, (New York: Zone Book, 2011) 71-79.

Paul is frank about his politics, and voices his support for progressive policies and causes.  The politicization of the body is at least as old as the Medieval period, and we can find a related historical example in the historian Charles Freeman’s fantastic and entertaining book Holy Bones, Holy Dust:  In 1247, roughly one hundred and fifty years before Henry Chichele first rose to power in England, the King of England, Henry III, saw himself as gaining status and power via a blood cult.  The blood cult centered around a reliquary containing Christ’s blood which came from Jerusalem.  The Bishop of Norwich declared, regarding the distinction England earned via owning the blood of Christ while France only had the Cross: “Now it is true that the Cross is a very holy relic but it is holy only because it came into direct contact with the precious blood of Christ.  The holiness of the Cross derives from the blood whereas the holiness of the blood in no way derives from the Cross.  It therefore follows that England, which possesses the blood of Christ, rejoices in a greater treasure than France, which has no more than the Cross.” [1] Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) 188-189.

The Battle for Bedford Ave

In the drawing The Battle for Bedford Ave Paul Brainard enters into less personal territory, and addresses NYC and pop culture.  Bearded Confederate generals mix with bearded hipsters, and the fictional MKULTRA type character – Jason Bourne, intermixes with Osama bin Laden, Iron Maiden’s power ballad zombie, and supermodels. In an interview for the show with Eric White, Paul expressed his beliefs about art and politics: “There is a certain reactionary atmosphere that surrounds current discourse in contemporary art that is very stifling and not very nuanced in the understanding that most artists are on the same side (and that this side is the side of liberal progressives).  In general, I have found most artists are liberals or libertarians, opposed to racial, gender and sexual oppression.   But you would never know this in the contemporary discourse surrounding contemporary art.”


Paul is also an accomplished oil painter, and makes compositions that have deep perspectival space – that at the same time is disjointed. The paintings have a feeling of rapid movement that is chopped into discrete moments.  At the same time, a recurrent image is a flat wall with double doors, like a subway car.  The paintings imply movement, stoppage, and passage.


This essay will finish with Paul’s oil painting Necros.  Necros is the name of Mid-Western punk band whose most famous album was Conquest for Death.  Necros is also very close to the word necropsy, which is another term for autopsy.  The middle of the painting is filled with zooming diagonal spaces which set up a three-dimensional sense of depth.  Foregrounded is a self-portrait of Paul in zombie makeup, and the words “Horror!!! your host Swamp Honkey.”

The post Paul Brainard’s My Body is a Grave appeared first on Beautiful/Decay.

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