THE CELESTIAL GUARD
the art of Silas Plum
curated by Shelby Len
Battle of the Blood Red Sun
In looking at this painting, it is all too tempting to relate the scene depicted to a known myth or historical event. Is the standing warrior a character of Homeric literature? A victorious hero immortalized in history? There are obstacles throughout the painting that keep us from assigning a value on this scene based on whatever it alludes to, from the surreal, floating ground the warrior seems to stand on, to the amoeba-like sun the warrior looks up at, to the galaxy-like milieu that the scene is situated in. Perhaps we should take this painting as a lesson in how we conceptualize and situate the stories, of both mythic and anecdotal proportions, in our memories.
Hercules vs. The Star Centaur
The Greek hero Hercules probably exists in the minds of most college-age students as the main character, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, of the Disney movie "Hercules". However, it is worth the reminder that before Hercules's deification into the pop cultural canon, he was one of the most popular heroes of Greek myth. Not only that, but there's a constellation in his namesake, effectively immortalizing and consecrating his heroic life. In Hercules, Plum puts Hercules in the dead center of the painting among a starry, yet explosive background, thus bringing to life his presence in the night sky. What's more is that Plum plays with the sanctity of Hercules rather than leaving it at face value. Why is it that it seems that the Hercules above looks to be made of wood? Why is his groin a bright green? In this way, Hercules offers both a commentary and an homage.
Icon for the Vulnerable Man
Here, Plum engages in a dialogue with the millennia old pictorial tradition of religious iconography. In medieval times, icons of saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ would be paraded through towns as a form of practicing devotion, and to this day icons can be bought and sold at almost any major cathedral, particularly those of Orthodox and Catholic sects. However, in Icon, Plum posits the idea that even the commoner can be deified, imperfections and all. The central figure of the painting has been laid bare, their literal insides and flaws left to the scrutiny of the viewer. In this way, Icon begs several questions: are we to understand the value of human life as something divine? Are we meant to assign value to human beings?
Plum presents an interesting juxtaposition here between the vulgar and quotidian and the elevated and sophisticated. The title refers to David Bowie's song of the same name, which is a celebration of flamboyance, androgyny, and the flourishing rock underground of the 1970s at large. In contrast, the painting itself depicts what resembles a 19th or early 20th century cameo, which in addition to being a popular item of jewelry have been a medium for depicting epic battle scenes and gods as far back as Classical Greek times. However, the bold coloring and the face paint on the figure already pull the rug from beneath us, subverting our expectations of what a "proper" cameo might resemble. Thus, the piece seems to be a shrewd subversion of what we might deem as haute or urbane.
The Sanctification of Don Quixote
Most are probably colloquially aware of the novel Don Quixote, but are you aware that other later classics such as Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reference this seminal work of Western literature? Plum pays homage to this novel's profound influence by literally presenting Don Quixote as a saint, not only in the piece's title but also in the halo that he places behind Quixote's head. Although an idea, such as one for a novel, can't have a price tag put on it, how should we understand the value of a monumental and influential idea such as this one? How has it situated itself in our collective psyche as the story itself has aged?
Since the age of twelve, Silas Plum has been intrigued by the idea of objective versus subjective value. This obsession began when he won the East Coast POG tournament. The prize was 500 POG’s, small collectible cardboard circles, each with an identical red and blue design on the front. Why were these POG's important? How could anything not necessary for survival be worth more than anything that was? Does artistic sentiment have value?
The POG’s are gone, but the questions remain. Through assemblages of defunct currency, discarded photographs, and long-forgotten illustrations, Silas Plum challenges the idea of objective vs subjective value. He believes strongly in the tired old maxim that the true value of an object is more than the sum of its parts, that the gut is a truth-teller, and that the Aristotelian notion of learning-by-doing is the best teacher around. Judge his worth at silasplum.com.
Through Plum's usage of vivid, bold colors, and his abstraction of space via color fields and eye-catching collage, he expresses and quantifies the subtle and insidious nature of how we assess value to objects of our psyche, and asks us to reassess the values we assign to things both mundane and profound, be it an ages old myth or human life itself. The goal in this re-contextualization is to give fresh life and value to the objects we perhaps take for granted.
Shelby Len is a second year undergraduate studying art history at UW-Madison. Within her major, she's interested in art of the early modern period, particularly in Northern Europe. Outside her academic studies, she DJ's and works at WSUM 91.7FM, UW-Madison's student-run radio station. In that way, she enjoys the curation of music just as much as the curation of art. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading feminist theory, and spending time with her two roommates.