State of the Arts: Catacombs

Remains of the day: Catacombs, on view at Izzy's Coffee Den, features 250 paintings of skulls by Marshall-based artist Francesco Lombardo.

Death and taxes — they’re life’s only two constants. Or so they’ve been called by the likes of Ben Franklin, Daniel Defoe and Dorothy Parker. But while you can avoid your taxes (at risk of a hefty prison sentence) the former is still, and always will be, wholly inescapable. It’s a cold fact that can either inhibit a life or fill it with vigor and vitality — and it’s the sole, contemplative subject of Catacombs, a new mortality-minded exhibition of works by Marshall-based painter Francesco Lombardo. The show opens Friday, June 6, at Izzy’s Coffee Den.

The exhibit features nearly 250 4-by-5-inch oil paintings, each bearing a study of an individual skull. Some are loose renderings defined only by bulky, curvilinear shapes pulled from chalky-gray and burnt-brown backgrounds. Others are painstakingly crafted, with gentle brushwork defining each and every socket, fold, bump, dimple and depression. Still others are buried within shadowy depths, seen only by ghostly highlights.

These studies have long served as a brief yet technical reprieve between Lombardo’s work on his lavish, neo-baroque figure paintings, which make up the bulk of his artistic direction. But, as these small skeletal studies began to pile up, so did their psycho-gravitational pull. “[The skulls] became a loop that built upon itself,” Lombardo says.

In fact, the renderings began to remind the artist of Roman catacombs. Those crypts provided meeting places for refugees, pirates, smugglers, revolutionaries and cults, Lombardo says. The idea caused him to wonder how much of an impact the mortal motifs left on their secluded visitors and in what ways the skull imagery can affect a modern audience.

The setting in Asheville (and in Izzy’s for that matter) is a long way from the historic Italian catacombs. Still, Lombardo views cafe culture as a similar-minded breading ground for personal and interpersonal thought, action and reaction. Cafes are where people go to meet, read and think, he says, and in that, they share in the reflective environs that the catacombs provided.

But in amassing and exhibiting the works, Lombardo isn’t necessarily attempting to re-create such a space. It’s more an effort to temporarily add an unfamiliar psychological undercurrent — those nearly-250 sets of eyes — to what he sees as a pre-existing and ever-contemplative space. (He refers to death as “the uninvited counselor.”  And it’s an aim that’s only augmented by Izzy’s dimly lit and narrow space.

Lombardo isn’t obsessed with death. Rather, his work is about the impact on one’s decisions and direction. “It’s not a fear of death,” he says, “it’s a reminder that death is just a constant.”

Much of Lombardo’s art draws from the writings of Marcus Aurelius (who embraced his own mortality as a means of freeing himself from its psychological limits) and from Nietzsche’s concept of eternal reoccurrence. Aurelius’ meditations have long served as a conceptual foundation for the daring and courageous — and those with a touch of reckless abandon.

But Lombardo’s visual take on Nietzsche’s reappraisal sinks deeper. He simply asks viewers whether or not they’re living a life that they’d be happy with if condemned to repeat it for eternity. “Either you embrace that,” he says, “or you regret it.”

Catacombs opens at Izzy’s Coffee Den on Friday, June 6, 6-9 p.m. during the First Friday Art Walk.

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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