Blog

Art of the Skull: The Cranium and the Mandible

By: Heath Killen, Category: At The Museum, Date: 27 Jan 2015

A blog series with stories from the artists, designers & illustrators involved in the contemporary pop up gallery in the Aztecs exhibition.

Art of the Skull: The Cranium and the Mandible #1

Art of the Skull: The Cranium and the Mandible #1
Photographer: Heath Killen © Heath Killen

My response to this project was to examine the construction of the human skull and its most elementary parts which are the cranium and the mandible. It is remarkable to me that such a vital, multifunctional part of our anatomy is so elegant and simple in its design. The cranium primarily provides a housing for the brain, protecting it from damage. It also provides sensory structures such as cavities for the eyes, which are set at fixed points that provide optimum spacing for stereoscopic vision. Attached to the lower frontal section of the cranium is the mandible which is essentially your jawbone. The mandible houses your teeth, and with the aid of a system of nerves and muscles, allows you to chew food and articulate speech.

I took these two parts and used them to develop a system with which to produce an artwork. The system comprises of two shapes designed with a mathematical relationship to each other. The shapes are a circle with a quarter section removed to represent the cranium, and a parallelogram to represent the mandible. These two shapes are meant to be more abstract than figurative and used in a way that creates new meanings and interesting forms. Ideally though they should still evoke the sense of a skull if not a literal reconstruction of one.

I wanted my submission to this exhibition to be an exercise in restraint to create a finished form by using as few elements as possible. This included colour and so I stripped back the work entirely to black, white, and grey. Grey stock was sourced for the background and white and black ink were chosen for the two shapes that make up the skull. I did consider using only white, but the black was added to visually separate the two parts and reinforce abstraction over representation.

My good friend, the screen printer and artist Kate Banazi did the printing, and it was during this process that we developed the final configurations of the diptych. My initial aim was to produce a series of editions that broke the two parts up and placed them randomly on the page however the strongest images that we created were actually the most “skulllike”, appearing to be a front and side on portrait of a skull. After printing the two shapes on top of each other in a very straightforward way to create the front view, the side view is achieved by rotating the ‘cranium’ on its side and masking off half of the mandible then printing in almost exactly the same position. I was struck by how such a small and simple movement could have such a transformative effect. While I had intended to create something much more abstract, this made the most sense for the exhibition.

Some imperfections appeared on the shapes during the process of burning the screens for printing. This is a natural part of the process, and while you can work to remove them entirely and create something more precise and “perfect”, I chose to preserve these imperfections. To me they are beautiful happy accidents which serve to heighten the abstract nature of the work and evoke the textural details that might be found in the bones of a skull.

Heath's work can be found at http://www.heathkillen.com and on instagram @heathkillen