If Jean-Michel Basquiat and Pablo Picasso were capable of birthing an unruly bastard child he would probably resemble Rehgan De Mather who would, at a young age, travel a great deal and become, at various times, an adherent of Cuba’s Santería, Brazil’s Candomblé and Haiti’s Vodun. He would drink Tequila in a flea-bitten flophouse in Cancun while watching the revelries of the Day of the Dead. He would settle for a brief time in Aguascalientes where he smoked cheroots with the director of the Museo Nacional de la Muerte, musing upon their shared fascinations with what will happen on the day of their deaths. He would dine on dulces de Calaveras and pan de muerto with Jose Guadalupe Posada, or Don Lupe as he was known to his friends, the wretched but prolific printmaker, whose iconographic skulls emblazoned his home town. De Mather was even rumoured to have threatened William S. Burroughs, accusing him of stealing the last of his cigarillos. But no matter what misadventures De Mather undertook, they always led to the same thing: making art.
He stole pre-Columbian artifacts from the museums of Mexico and Ecuador in order to inspire experimentation with sculptural elements and dabbled with installation and performance triggered by his experiences with Candomblé. And then, finally, De Mather settled down. He fathered a child, leading to long musings on life itself and the changing tides of time. And, of course, he made art.
Death, religion and art have been bedfellows for time immemorial. At times this makes for bleak aesthetic fodder, but almost as often death calls for celebration. For some, death is the end. For others it is simply a seismic change, a move into another realm. One has only to encounter the joyous and raucous jazz cacophony of a New Orleans funeral or the hallucinatory dazzle of the Mexican Day of the Dead – in stark contrast the somber blackness of a traditionally catholic funeral – to realise that there are other ways to view the afterlife.
Confronted by these celebrations and their ceremonies, both historical and present, De Mather began to wonder how we live now, how we die now, and how we confront the challenges and responsibilities of contemporary life. Dancing with Death explores themes of life and death and simultaneously investigates the contrast between the cultural ceremonies the artist encountered abroad and the rituals that compose our daily routines. But while all of this may sound almost ponderous, death here is not without colour, and indeed, humour. The hallucinogenic morass of Laughing at Death and Laughing with Death suggest a dance macabre topped with a dose of LSD. There are moments of Dadaist mayhem and surrealistic couplings (the tongue in cheek Duchampian in A Life Still Constructed) and Warholesque Pop (Put ’em Up), pure whimsy (The Death of the Real Mr Art and the wry All I Wanted Was A Pepsi) and cargo-cult mysticism in Blood, Sweat and Fears, which combines the memento mori with bloodied street art.
Dancing with Death suggests a maelstrom of styles and ideas, each canvas and construction happily sipping at the history of visual art like a delirious vampire. De Mather laughs and dances with death, bringing death back to life. And that is how it should be.
Ashley Crawford, 2014.