I met Ryan Standfest nine years ago, when I did a visiting artist gig at the University of Iowa in the printmaking department. Ryan was–is–a very smart fellow, but at the time he seemed to be struggling with the vision of professional life that his MFA program was selling, at least implicitly. Iowa's program is a storied one, but much has (and had) changed in the past several decades in case you hadn't noticed. This is a profession-wide challenge: what is an MFA for?
Meanwhile. I have stayed in touch with Ryan. After an interlude in New York he landed in Detroit. Since then his doggedness and shambling yet precise malevolence have found impressive focus. Faced with the increasing irrelevance of old models, Mr. Standfest has integrated his artistic practice into Rotland Press, a publishing venture devoted to black humor. Rotland's tagline is admirably clear: FINE PUBLISHER OF EXCURSIONS INTO HUMOR + DESPAIR. Ryan has recruited some heavy hitters from the graphic set to his projects, including Sue Coe, David Sandlin, Heinrik Drescher and David Lynch, among others.
I am happy to have participated in two projects with Rotland, both connected to Ryan's interest in the prolific Mexican illustrator/printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Last year Rotland published Black Eye 2, "an anthology of humor and despair." Included in the softcover book was an insert, Memory of Posada. (The Black Eye stuff is not for the faint of heart. I have a darkly funny p.o.v. sometimes, but call me Thumper compared to some of these people. BE2 is punishingly grim, even nihilistic. But it's high quality nihilism, which is significant. It testifies to Ryan Standfest's strength of vision, which I salute.
I contributed a piece to Memory of Posada, Rodrigo!, devoted to the nonfiction story of an Oklahoma restaurant manager who drove his car into a lake after shooting himself in the head according to police reports. I wanted to avoid the cliché of Posada's calaveras skulls and capture the tabloid spirit of much of Posada's newspaper work.
Last spring I heard from Ryan that he was putting together a Posada print show in Detroit. (It has come to pass. Chasing Posada opens today, September 18, at Signal-Return, in the Eastern Market neighborhood, at 6:00 pm.) I was disinclined to reprise Rodrigo! as an editioned print. On reflection I decided to pass on producing a print, but volunteered to create an illustrated two-page spread in a tabloid publication that Rotland Press is putting out to commemorate the show.
As it happened, I chose a subject with a public-spirited dimension that was also a) properly ghoulish, and b) coincidentally, also set in Oklahoma: the botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014. In the end I made use of that skeleton convention anyway (although I modified it somewhat, using the 15th century Danse Macabre handling of the dead as withered corpses, not skeletons, grounded in the commonplace observation of washed-out graves in medieval Paris cemeteries–a byproduct of frequent flooding. I also made use of a contemporary typeface, Medium Gothic, to suggest to the irregularity of wood type in 19th century broadsides.
Below, the text from the page spread:
Vengeance is mine sayeth the State of Oklahoma
The End of Clayton Lockett.
In 1999, Mr. Lockett led an ill-starred home invasion interrupted by an unlucky 19-year-old named Stephanie Nieman. Clayton Lockett shot her twice with a shotgun, then directed his partner to bury her. “But she’s still alive,” said Mathis, the accomplice.
“Bury her anyway,” instructed Mr. Lockett.
A year later, Lockett was convicted of murder, rape, forcible sodomy, kidnapping, and assault and battery. He was sentenced to death.
In 2014, Locket was finally slated for execution. A firing squad might have matched the spirit of his crime. But nowadays the righteous state kills more discreetly.
To spare the public the discomfort of violence, officials administer lethal drugs to do in killers. Yet drug makers now refuse to sell such compounds for executions. Corrections departments labor to find secret suppliers & conceal their often untested concoctions.
On April 29, 2014, the State of Oklahoma tried to kill Clayton Lockett with midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. But the injections were botched; instead of entering his bloodstream, the drugs pooled in his tissues.
Clayton writhed and convulsed as the drugs took effect. Flustered officials pulled the curtains and cut the audio feed.
After 40 minutes, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack.
(NOTE: since my deadline, new information has come to light that casts doubt on the theory that Lockett died of a heart attack.)
Meanwhile, Ryan's Posada show is packaged to travel to elsewhere in the country. Any takers? Academically speaking from an art school perspective, It's a rich fusion of drawing, printmaking and illustration, as was its inspirational practitioner. If you know of possibilities, contact me and I will pass them on to Monsieur Standfest.