Dr Ruth, Scanners, 1981, written and directed by David Cronenberg
Bursting with frenetic energy, Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack) spectacularly showcases Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterful draughtsmanship, fearless mark-making and free-floating psyche. In an explosion of visual dynamism, the present work translates the language of cinema and movies into gesture and image, endowing the medium of drawing with an electric, pulsating voice. As king of cool in the early eighties, Basquiat was deeply engrained in circles of American cinematic royalty, and the present drawing offers an intense portrait of actor and artist Steven Lack, a great friend of Basquiat, and star of the cult classic horror film Scanners, which was released in cinemas across the United States in 1981. The laboratory of lines and images on the surface of Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack) illuminates Lack in character as Cameron Vale, a homeless social outcast driven mad by his powers of telepathy, mind-control and telekinesis. As his character in the film, Lack is depicted by Basquiat with wide, vacant blue eyes and chaotic hair, his mouth ajar in a silent scream. Throughout the hyper-dramatic scenes of David Cronenberg’s Scanners, Vale follows a majestic trajectory from vagabond to prevailing hero, a path not dissimilar to Basquiat’s own – he, too, lived on the street after fleeing his parent’s Brooklyn home, only to embark upon a meteoric rise as New York’s ‘Radiant Child’. The very year the present work was executed, art critic Rene Ricard wrote of Basquiat’s sublime evolution, “This is an honest way to rise out of the slum, using one’s sheer self as the medium, the money earned rather a proof pure and simple of the value of that individual, The Artist” (Rene Ricard, ‘The Radiant Child’, Artforum, Vol. 20, No. 4, December 1981, p. 38). Basquiat undoubtedly saw remnants of himself in Lack’s downtrodden, dispossessed alter-ego, and thus proudly renders his friend and Hollywood hero through a highly unique graft of popular culture into high art.
Remarkably, Basquiat was only 21 years-old when he drew Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack), and here the artist’s visual language reveals an unbridled aesthetic potential. For Basquiat, drawing was more than a preparatory exercise for painting, rather it was a medium in which the artist’s vivid spontaneity and invention could have freest range; in his drawings, “his working method seems always to move from the full to the indicated, from the complex to its essence” (Larry Warsh, Ed., Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks, New York 1993, p. 10). In the present work, various codes, lexicons and symbols, all deeply inherent to Basquiat’s oeuvre, engulf the seemingly reverberating figure of Lack. In the upper left corner, cross sections of vertical and horizontal lines become images of stitches and scars, while a single crutch hovers in the adjacent corner. Such foreboding symbols of the human body in pain are juxtaposed against two objects reminiscent of film reels, and it is the figure of Lack that ties the composition together in a visual escapade of cinematic horror.
Throughout the early 1980s Basquiat continually synthesised imagery from Hollywood with his singular graffiti aesthetic: “References to these elements are constants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of-conscious shopping list, pointing out our daily over-dose of mass culture’s effluvia” (Greg Tate, ‘Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk’, ibid., p. 47). A diverse group of Basquiat’s works on paper from the same period, including Untitled (Oscar/Famous) and Untitled (Gene Kelly), acutely expose the artist’s fanatical obsession with Hollywood actors, the Oscars, and the notion of fame, and in such works Basquiat powerfully copyrights the word ‘famous’, taking it for his own. Thus Untitled (Portrait of Steven Lack) offers a critical foundation for the artist’s later introspection and analysis of his own fame through the imagery of cinema. After Basquiat’s premature death, Steven Lack himself professed, “through his special language and sensitive line quality… you can see and feel the isolation of the individual and sense the artist’s distance and desperation… It was strange and difficult to know Jean-Michel and to be his friend…” (Steven Lack, ibid., dust jacket). As such, the present work becomes an expression not only of Basquiat’s admiration for the faces of the silver screen but also an elegant homage to the way in which Steven Lack’s path crossed with his own. Thus in the present work, Basquiat extends to his viewers a specific and selective narrative: “He has the perfect idea of what he’s getting across, using everything that collates his vision” (Rene Ricard, 1981, op. cit., p. 37).
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