Studies in skulls

Edw Martinez’ study of Day of the Dead art takes a darker view

Several altars are part of Edw Martinez’ exhibit.

Several altars are part of Edw Martinez’ exhibit.

Photo By David Robert

By means of the Hispanic tradition, local artist Edw Martinez shares with us his own slightly darker impressions of death in Altars and Calaveras 2002: Appropriated Images from Los Días de los Muertos. Martinez takes an American taboo and looks at it from the realist and naturalist perspective of another culture, all the while maintaining a grave sense of humor.

A casual, and often fearless, attitude toward death that exists throughout all Hispanic cultures is exemplified no better than in the Nov. 2 celebration of the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This is a festive day, where people celebrate those who’ve died by cleaning graveyards and by eating candies and breads in the shapes of calaveras (skulls) and esqueletos (skeletons).

Martinez conducts his own examination of the death imagery associated with the Day of the Dead celebration. His exhibit revolves around the Calaveras images first created by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a familiar Día de los Muertos artist. Martinez printed 10 of Posada’s skull caricatures and then did larger-scale specific studies of them.

Ranging from stylish ladies to gauchos, each Calaveras image is not much more than a friendly looking, well-dressed skull—skulls that look so amiable you’d be happy to chat with them in what started out as a bad dream.

Martinez makes experimental replications of Posada’s Calaveras in two graphite, pencil and varnish pieces titled, “Posada Study: Gent with Hat” and “Posada Study: Priest Guy.” These are much more detailed and realistic looking than Posada’s cute and cartoon-like images, which means they are also creepier. Because Martinez’ skulls are anatomically accurate, they look all the more ridiculous when decked out in top hat, cane, spectacles and suit. He also does two “Ensorian studies,” based on works of the Belgian painter Ensor, who also had a fascination with the grotesque. In these pieces, two skulls face each other while fighting over a carp.

Three altars in Martinez’ exhibit emphasize the religious and spiritual connotations surrounding death. Another especially intriguing piece, “Big Goya and Little Goya,” shows a large skull on the top of a rounded, androgynous body, which essentially vomits another child-size skull into a bowl in its lap. It is eerie, but maternal—a delightfully dreary image of death begetting death.

Though much Day of the Dead art seems charming and festive, Martinez’ works are neither. Perhaps it is because Hispanic culture presents death in such an inoffensive way that people accept it more kindly. If "death" art looked more like what Martinez shows us, children would undoubtedly be more hesitant to cuddle up with their skeleton dolls in bed.