What lies beneath

Visual representations have always run the entire gamut from hyper-realism to the soul crushingly abstract, and each point along that spectrum will have its faithful acolytes and sworn enemies. Michael Capili’s art is no exception, but it is exceptional.

At first glance, a typical person would cringe as he realises that there is something not quite right with what he is seeing.

The body of a human striking a pose reminiscent of a benevolent deity, for instance, is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a bug’s head and the delicate wings of a housefly. Or it could be a cicada’s. Whatever. That isn’t the point.

The various elements are rendered with an almost obsessive attention to detail – from the drapery of the robes, to the segmentation of the antennae, to the little hairs on the bug face.

But as with all art, what matters is how the imagery affects you. The discomfort is the point.

For contrast, check out greeting card (or is it a Christmas calendar?) poinsettia at the bottom of the picture. Sure, it’s cute; and the colours are vibrant. But beyond that, there really isn’t anything more to it. It’s art that’s designed to be looked at and forgotten.

Not this bug. This bug is meant to shake you up, and in that disquiet, you might find yourself asking questions that you wouldn’t have bothered to ask otherwise.

In this one piece, you can see the things that transform Capili’s art from the pedestrian to the the thought-provoking: the meticulous detail; the use of shocking imagery in the service of a deeper, although at times difficult to glimpse, narrative ; and strong technical skills. That Capili is largely self-taught emphasises that last quality all the more.

Capili’s art represents an extreme expression of a a distinctly American pop surrealist form – sometimes called lowbrow art. Of this kind of art, Steven Madoff – war-winning writer, poet, and recognised authority on modern art – once wrote: “The mutant sensibility at work in this droll, smartly curated exhibition proposes the marriage of Surrealism’s dream-laden fetish for the body eroticized and grotesque and Pop art’s celebration of the shallower, corrosively bright world given over the packaged good.”

In other words, Capili’s art draws from the deep wells of his imagination and acts as his own unique commentary on the status quo.


More of that detail is on display in this phantasmagorical work that, to be honest, I’ve already stared at for far too long than is necessarily healthy.

At this point, you might well ask:

What does it all mean?
To which I would reply, well, what does it mean to you?

For the artist himself, it could mean a whole lot of things, or it could mean nothing, I suppose. He mostly draws these works on random scraps of paper, including paper cup sleeves from Starbucks (of all places). And there is a strong argument to be made for the total lack of deeper meaning. I mean, what possible relevance could a tick hold?

No, wait. Ticks … invisible blood suckers … I take it back. Garapatas are fairly relevant. Remember what I said about barely glimpsed narratives?

I shouldn’t be surprised.

When I first met Michael Capili more than ten years ago, I had no idea that art formed such an important part of his life – a part of his narrative, if you like, that I never suspected. Sadly government employment can do that to you – keep you so mired in the daily bureaucratic grind that it’s almost like your creativity is being bled out of you day by day. Thankfully, this has obviously not happened to Mike. Heck, it might have even inspired that hairy lil’ jumper.

Seriously, however, the tick (apart from being such a perfect metaphor) – just as much as the rest of Capili’s art – represents a starting point for thought. It is a challenge to your frame of mind, and an invitation to look more closely under the surface of things. It’s easy to be awed by the intricate detailing of the art; the pointillism alone must take hours and hours of painstaking work. But it would be a mistake to look at Capili’s works and to just focus on its technical brilliance. There is much more there than meets the eye. All it really takes is the courage to rip back the skin and embrace the wet mess that lies beneath.



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