“Art is the best way to express things culturally.” – Bryan Lewis Saunders
December 22 2014 – The politically correct way for self-expression was never in Bryan Lewis Saunders vernacular. And that’s a good thing. A self-confessed weirdo with psychopathic tendencies kept deeply hidden through the process of isolation has nurtured a form of creativity few if any could replicate. Every day, and I mean every day since March 30th 1995, Bryan Lewis Saunders has created a self-portrait through the hazy lens of his many maladies. Ten thousand bold, manic, illuminating, prophetic, irksome, pleasing, cool, mercurial images of self which he manifests on paper, harkens to an all-together deeper understanding of the ways in which he relates to this world. This is his version of mental health maintenance and its working.
The intersection between art and commerce is a well-worn path reinforced through a cultural narrative many centuries old; the intersection between art and mental illness is a far less storied passage. At first blush this disheveled 40-something introvert greets you on his couch with a rambling child-like diatribe of creative awareness mashed-up with heady undertones of personal ambiguity that tells you something is just not right in his world. And yet the unyielding breadth of emotion, depth, colour and interpretation he authors in his portraits from such a simple premise seizes an unsettling beauty from his subconscious that couldn’t be more right. Filmmaker David Parker captures the wisdom and failings of an artist’s daily purge of loathsome anxieties as he attacks his own life experiences through various mediums in the compelling new documentary, “Art of Darkness”.
We have all seen this kid on the playground. You know the type, that spectacled skinny forgotten youngster who nobody seems to notice yet somehow always got beaten. This clique-less apparition who floated through high school was mindful of no one while trying to placate the masses. Placed in one gifted program after another yet still feeling unchallenged in school, the stigmatizing label of being different is the one term every student dreaded. Well Bryan Lewis Saunders was that kid. A 60’s latchkey kid whose morbid fascination with the dead and dying formed an off-beat perspective that was self-nurtured in the most non-conformist of ways. Art became his muse and East Tennessee State University’s Fine Arts program became his unruly proving ground. Once again the square peg/round hole syndrome reappeared. An investment in such an earthy character study is never an easy read for any filmmaker, which made Parker’s total immersion into the altered world that is Bryan Lewis Saunders that much more impressive. The Art of Darkness with all its illuminating insight and arresting storylines is still a cautionary tale of substance abuse told through the fertile lens of art and illness.
“Find out what bothers you and explore it.” – Bryan Lewis Saunders
Saunders mastery of self-narration and his thorough command of art history and culture further validates an advanced intellectual capacity that has one questioning the piecemeal existence to which he resides. The purest form of each experience is reflected in every nuance and inflection he delivers on his art. So it should come as no surprise that as a precursor to his first visit to China in pursuit of a long standing dream, he was able to teach himself Mandarin in 9 months. Art is the self- imposed therapy that represses his inner demons if only for a moment. The prodigious commitment he has invested in his craft is not just a cathartic buzz, it’s the gift that gives him the life purpose he seeks. But, is it more than that? When I prospect the many mood altering images of Saunders, at times I am reminded of the primitivism of Basquiat’s early portrait works such as Cabeza (1982) or the unsettling Head Series (1949) by Francis Bacon. The slow dissolve of each dreamy to dread, docile to delirium portrait is seamlessly back-filled with a hauntingly original score by Catalin Marin giving a veritable celestial tone to each image. Marin’s lyrical collection of emotive movements elevates an already lofty piece of work to even greater heights.
Where depression, delusion and dysfunction are seen as natural impediments to one’s daily routine, Saunders leverages these shortcomings into an accelerated body of work creating other worldly forms. After suffering a spontaneous Pneumothorax setback through extreme stress Saunders forged an introspective series of portraits which took on a whole new meaning. With so much to draw from, Parker has effectively storyboarded his documentary into discreet coherent chapters with the most compelling being the (in)famous Drug Series. Through his own creative license, Saunders experiments over the course of 11 days with dangerous doses of narcotics to determine the cause-and-effect relationship to his finished portraits. The cocktail of perception-altering drugs ran the gamut from Trazadone to Hydrocodone, Salvia Divinorum to Seroquel, Tramadol to Cyclobenaoprine, Zyprexa to Dilaudid and on and on and on. The ethical question aside, the creative effects were astounding.
VERDICT 4 out of 5 – Method or madness? There is nothing remotely garden variety about the Art of Darkness. Not the artist, not the art, and definitely not artistic motivations. Bryan Lewis Saunders is a conformity rebel of the best kind and Filmmaker David Parker harnesses his more aberrant qualities to a tee. We only scratch the surface of this multi-talented performance artist, videographer, spoken word rants, tragic art performances, stand up tragedy and lecturer. The openness with which Saunders expounds on his mental illness and ruinous up bringing pull at the very essence of his plight. The uptight art and multi-media world can only look yonder for so long before the prowess of Bryan Lewis Saunders comes knocking.
FINAL THOUGHT: The buzz on Saunders is the “buzz” in Saunders.
Genre: Documentary, Biography
Country: Canada, USA
Director: David Parker
Producer(s): David Parker, Randy Holder
Cinematography: David Parker, Jazz Virk, Randy Holder
Original Score: Catalin Marin
Daku Film By: James Hollenbaugh
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Premiere: Canadian Premiere (Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival)
Cast: Bryan Lewis Saunders