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Jake Saunders: Coded Scenes

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Many artists use narrative element in their practice. Some artists are capable of actually telling a story. Jake Saunders uses sequestered images culled out of contemporary culture to create sometimes bizarre, but always engaging work that blurs the line between melancholy and apocalyptic.

Whether this glamorous gloom and doom attitude to his work came from a Midwest upbringing or an East Coast education, Saunders has used it effectively to become one of the more lettered emerging contemporary artists in Northeast Indiana. Completing his MFA from the University of Connecticut in 2009, Saunders has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, had his second solo exhibition, and is in the collection of the William Bentom Museum in Connecticut

Jake Saunders' work is heavily connected to the idea of "the story," so narrative elements are plentiful, and can reference anything from film, literature, and graphic novels. A good deal of Saunders' stories tend to include a false autobiography, usually placing himself, or perhaps a version of himself, into the role of the antagonist in each frame. To clear some of this up, Saunders' artist statement says "I merge myself with the perceived character of my subject and amalgamate autobiography and stories of true-life tragedy into a visual narrative. The visualized intersections of my own, rather ordinary, story and that of another traverse the human condition and reveal that which is commonplace in the extreme and the Shakespearian-level tragedies within the ordinary autobiography." Using hyperbole as a primary device, Saunders' individual images become small allegorical totems, simultaneously filling the space of a line in a stanza, and representing a complete tale.

Saunders' earlier work, like "Fertilizer," straddles the parallel lines of minimalism and expressionism, depicting illicitly detailed subjects residing within pure white environments. The subjects evoke one of the great expressionist masters, Kathe Kollwitz, and her stark depictions of the poverty prevalent among the working class in the early 20th century. "Fertilizer" depicts a single, upheld, visually disembodied, faltering hand and arm rising out of a rather gothic cornfield. By creating these asymptotic images, Saunders creates an always active content, relying on the viewers curiosity and doubt, which creates a plethora of possible stories to be told by a single image. Other images in this series, titled Murder Ballad 2: Twenty Variations on the Ballad John Bitzer, include "The Monster in the Corn" which includes the same cornfield and same arm of "Fertilizer," which are now attached and surrounding a disproportionately large male figure while an onlooking woman clutches her child. This pastiche that Saunders uses in these images allows him to deeply explore individual components in an astonishing variety of ways. Each component image now becomes word within a vocabulary governed by a compositional syntax.

Each series of work, which Saunders describes as "Murder Ballads" utilizes the Rashomon Effect, which can easily be summed up in the phrase "perception is reality." This concept is demonstrated when multiple observers of a single event present substantially different but equally plausible accounts, and is named after the Akira Kirosawa film by the same name which depicts a crime witnessed by four different people who describe it in contradictory ways. Saunder's rich conceptual practice, married so tightly with the formal aspects of each piece, allow his work to exist with exponentially more force than most other black and white images would. Saunders continues his "Murder Ballad 2 practice and expands his visual vocabulary in "Murder Ballad 4: The Bath School Disaster," this time also expanding the possible narrative axis with which the viewer has the option to interpret the work.

Skipping ahead, we can see further growth in Saunders' more recent work of 2010 with "Murder Ballad 11: Norwegian Black." This series has a much larger variety of media and begins to utilized projected self portraiture onto the anatoganist named Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian black metal musician who was convicted of arson and the murder of his band mate in 1994. "Murder Ballad 11" takes the form of a photocopied zine and a large series of graphite drawings, mixed media drawings, etched CD-ROMS, and ball point pen sketches. The series begins with "Self Portrait as Varg Vikernes on Aug 10 1993," depicts the murder of Oystein Aarseth, goes on to include images of Saunders as Varg committing arson on Fantoft Stave Church, includes multiple images relating Vikernes to Occultist and Satanist practices, and ends with three large depictions of "Degenerate Skulls" which refer to Vikernes' heavily racist beliefs. In these incredibly dense and vocal images, Saunders tells the story of a Euro-Goth criminal primarily through his own image. In this way, Saunders reveals his artistic practice as also being tied closely with the theatrical practice of Method acting, yet because of the static visual images which he produces, it also takes on more of a Brechtian mode, provoking the viewer not to empathize with the images but instead produce a very self-reflective and critical view of the images.

Jake Saunders' dense artistic practice allows each piece and each series to act as a brick in the total structure, while also not becoming too objectively repetitive or derivative. This is a rather rare achievement for a young emerging artist.

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