Dead Before 30: The Iconographic Value within Momentary States of Mind

by Nicholas Keen

Gaki.H, whose given name is Josh Higginbotham, grapples with the spontaneity of thought in his solo-show at Exquisite Corpse at the May 4th Art Hop of downtown Kalamazoo. Attending Western Michigan University’s Frostic School of Art, and a standing member of the Exquisite Corpse artist collective, Gaki.H allows for a glimpse into the confines of his cerebrum by way of presenting his collection, Dead Before 30. The exhibit is an exploration of the blurred divide between conscious and subconscious or, in other words, the ego. Doing just that, Gaki.H presents to us an engram of his psyche, a scaffold, if you will, of his thought processes.

As I perused the exhibition, I sought to perceive an overarching meaning to tie all the works together. Within each piece, traces of pencil are left visible, brushstrokes are made known, and black ink is poignantly implemented. As the eye is left hungry for connecting lines and seamless transitions of color, the work has a stylistically unfinished quality. It is as if we are perceiving the works in a perpetual state of progress, suspended in time and space, but dynamic in the same way our thoughts are. In the words of American painter Robert Motherwell, who was active in the New York School in the 1950’s, “How do you know when a work is finished?” [1] During the postwar period, many artists insisted that they leave work unfinished – insinuating that the scope of one’s work is gauged only by the duration of one’s profound engagement with it. [2] Much like Motherwell and other artists influenced by surrealism, Gaki.H leaves viewers with vestiges of thought that suggest the progressive quality of his surrealist perspective.

Gaki.H, Death, his shaman, is rising!, 2012, Watercolor, ink, and pencil on 140lb. Fabriano hot press watercolor paper

In particular, I would like to discuss the piece titled, Death, his shaman, is rising! as it more than adequately captures the immediate and expressionistic value of the collection. The strongest compositional point of the piece is the wide expanse of white saved out, implying the weighty mass of the figure’s cloak. Even more intriguing is how there is no divide between the white of the page and that of the border. This continuity gives the impression that the entity in question stands as an intruder breaking the seam of Gaki’s consciousness. Faint naturalistic drips of color hang below the figure’s face, leading the eye up and down the page, counteracting the washed-out effect a large white space might have. Everything about the piece has vitality, from the melancholic expression of the figure’s face to the murky brown brush strokes of the background. Fine highlights surrounding the shawl bring the face volumetrically forward against the flattened out space in the background. As I take a step back, the shaman seems as if it is rising beyond the foreground of the paper, bowing its head to what lies below. Side by side, the works titled Preta Abhaya and Paint Eater have very much the same effect. The fine pencil work and abstract figures stylistically coincide with the rest of the collection, only adding to incoherent experience one might expect to encounter in Gaki.H’s ego. So there I stand, transfixed but unaware of what precisely I am looking at. Although, one thing is for sure: the works exists within the moment as much as I do, making their conceptualization all the more believable, and above all enthralling. Contrasted by the white of the gallery walls, a greater sense of presence is imbued upon the works as their finer details are emphasized, solidifying the representational immortalization of Gaki.H’s imagination.

Gaki.H, Pain Eater, 2012, Watercolor, ink, and pencil on 140lb. Fabriano hot press watercolor paper

Delving further into the style and content of the works, I began to notice shared nuances between Gaki.H and the early 20th century Viennese expressionist Egon Schiele. Rough, dynamic, and alive, Schiele’s work exists in its own realm, bombarding viewers with crude depictions of the human form. In a review of art historian Jane Kallir’s Egon Schiele: The Complete Works, the vital erotic undertones are perceived to be part of the developmental process of his art and personality. [3] With that in mind, I find myself more readily digesting the iconographic value of Gaki.H’s stream of consciousness. Absurdist and incomplete, his figures are presented in a vacuous space cropped by the border of the paper – giving the impression that he is framing a momentary state of mind. The images themselves hold significance on their own, which transcends any analytic ability I may proffer, although it elicits an introspective pattern of thought. Like readers vicariously emoting through authors, we as the viewers begin to take on the reflective stance Gaki.H channels into his work. I experience the very same phenomena as I take in Schiele; cringing as my thoughts contort in accordance with the level of expression he conveys in his reflective pieces. Although it is impossible to holistically comprehend the enigma hung upon the walls, new self-exploratory ground is gained as we question the content of our very own inner thoughts – and just how we would put them on paper.

As I reflect upon the experience of the exhibition, I feel lost in the vacuum of space my thoughts occupy. I cannot say whether this is a bad thing, for my drive to cohere keeps me oddly fixated – almost as if I am caught in a perpetual loop of cognition – but then it occurred to me that just may be what Gaki.H wants. Though the state of mind presented is unlike anything I have personally encountered, I cannot help but question the content of my consciousness. The phrase ‘to be lost in thought’ now resonates within me, ambiguous in actuality, but fecund with inspiration. Gaki.H invites us to be lost in thought with him, encouraging a level of introspection and self-discovery by way of presenting us with momentary representations of thought. It is a natural human tendency to comprehend; we do it without even knowing it. Along with the extensive comprehension of our external world, this thirst for understanding extends to our individual existences in relation to others. In choosing to ponder this idealistic, clarified state of mind and present it to us, Gaki.H sets viewers up to ruminate on their individuality; showing us that it is the incoherency of our thoughts that make us unique and, ultimately, who we are.



[1] Katy Siegel, Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 25.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Vergo, “Egon Schiele: The Complete Works,” The Burlington Magazine (April 1991): 267 -268. Accessed May 18, 2012.


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