British artist Nic Grey’s latest exhibition The Disappearance is peppered with morbidities – sketches of corpses, sinister skeletons, women in mourning, a disembodied heart and, on a table, a bona fide monkey skull. If it makes viewers feel unsettled, that’s what the artist was hoping for.
The elements that compose the exhibit – sketches depicting a dark narrative; an ambient soundtrack; a series of items arrayed on a table, including a vintage syringe, an ancient letter, faded photographs and an old telephone – are all designed “to give the feeling that you’re coming across an old-fashioned mystery, like a ’40s detective story”, Grey said.
Grey, originally from East London and now based in Kampot, has showcased at Java four times before. His vividly textured work, reminiscent of 1970s American comix doyen Robert Crumb, focuses on the occult.
The sketches, heavily crosshatched depictions of phantasmic, dreary scenes, are candy for the eyes – though more black licorice than gumdrops.
Java cafe owner and art exhibitor Dana Langlois described his style as possessing a “horror vacui – a fear of emptiness”.
Inside his second-storey apartment in Kampot last week, the instruments of Grey’s phobia lay scattered on the floor. With his back propped up against his bed, the artist sat among black Uni Pin fine-line markers. Around him, the room was cluttered with sketching paper, vintage knickknacks and classic novels.
One item stuck out among the mess: a large framed photograph of a grey-haired man reclined on a sofa. UG Krishnamurti, an obscure 20th-century Indian philosopher and, for the last decade, an obsession of Grey’s.
“That’s him dying,” Grey remarked while hand-rolling a cigarette, the letters “D-E-A-D” inked on to his left set of knuckles.
The artist has spent countless hours tracing the enigmatic thinker’s life, an effort that went towards a beautiful, 140-page graphic novel, This Dog Barking: The Strange Story of UG Krishnamurti, that Grey recently finished.
Over several years, Grey, along with James Farley, a British social worker who wrote the text of the graphic novel, traced the thinker’s life, from his time with the Theosophical Society in India to his tumultuous years homeless in London and his dramatic transformation into the contrarian, anti-enlightenment figure he is known as today.
The title of the graphic novel is an allusion to the thinker’s philosophy, said Grey.
“UG used to say that he was no different than a dog, that his words were no more meaningful than a dog barking,” he said.
Grey’s novel, which for now is only available at select stores in Kampot and Battambang, contains the same grim melancholia and otherworldly doodlings as the work featured in The Disappearance – bent portraits, he said, of “the real world and the imagined world, with a kind of blurring of the two, the disappearance of one into another”.
The Disappearance will run at Java Cafe and Gallery near Independence Monument until February 28.