More than a Mortal Man: The Bowie that Inspired Art

  • “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
  • Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
  • I’m not a prophet or a stone ageman
  • Just a mortal with potential of a superman”
  • – David Bowie, “Quicksand”

The last image the world sees of David Bowie he’s clinging, black-button-eyed, to his sheets watching a sinister-looking version of himself creep back into a closet. This was the closing moments of Lazarus, Bowie’s swansong delivered days prior to his death from cancer, aged 69. Like so much of what surrounded Bowie’s artistry, the video and its ensuing significance left more questions than answers. Who—or, what, for that matter—was Bowie? Was he that frightened bedridden man, or the dancing djinn in the cupboard? Most likely he was a bit of both.

Buddy Nestor "We Are Made of Stars" 2016

Buddy Nestor, “We Are Made of Stars,” 2016.

“I hadn’t seen such a collective experience of grief since Elvis died,” says Stephen Romano, standing in his eponymous Bushwick gallery. At the time, Romano was so bowled over by this emotional outpouring he decided to reach out to some artist friends to gauge their interest in offering reverence for the departed through their art. Two short months later, a room in Romano’s gallery is filled almost entirely with work created in that time. The show has aptly been called “Saint Bowie”. Rather than a tribute, though, Romano prefers to think of the exhibit as a symbolic bridge connecting the two Bowie’s from Lazarus: the man and his lingering, eternal spirit.

A tiny jewel-encrusted animal skull is the first artwork you see entering the gallery. “Lil’ Major Tomcat,” announces Romano with a smile, introducing me to the creature creation of Kansas-based artist Chris Haas. The piece is of course a reference to Bowie’s first astral incarnation — an astronaut lost in space. It also unmistakably evokes the image of the spaceman skull that appears in the video for his final album’s titular track, Blackstar.

“It’s like an ephod,” says Romano, referring to the sacred idol, known in Kabbalistic mysticism for its divination properties. “All of these objects are meant in some way to commune with Bowie on the other side.”

Walking me further into the room, Romano draws my attention to some more of these objects, beginning with a dense circular maze of vinyl-cut stickers adorning his gallery’s front window. The piece, titled “Blackstar”, is a sigil created by Barry William Hale, an Australian artist and occult practitioner. “He took the lyrics from the song itself and translated it into occult script,” says Romano, indicating the foreign lettered forms, adding with a touch of his sardonic wit. “Heavy s—, right?”

Tine Kindermann, haitian Style Voodoo Bowie Floating In A Tin Can, 2016

Tine Kindermann, “Haitian Style Voodoo Bowie Floating In A Tin Can,” 2016.

“Haitian Style Voodoo Bowie Floating In A Tin Can” greets me next with it’s glazed doll eyes. As its name suggests, this mounted plastic figure creation of Tine Kindermann is littered with Bowie-affiliated ephemera. “That breastplate was from a 1973 episode of Midnight Special when Bowie sang ‘I got you Babe’ with Marianne Faithful,” says Romano, indicating the pair of black wings on the doll.

Dolorosa De La Cruz, Now Leaving Them All In The Never Never Land edit

Dolorosa De La Cruz, “Now Leaving Them All In The Never Never Land.”

The wings are just one of the many powerful images Bowie manifested over the years which reappear in “Saint Bowie”. In another work, “Now I Leave Them All In The Never Never Land”, Dolorosa De La Cruz (a “real witch” claims Romano) has depicted Bowie, hands clasped triangle-like in homage to a gesture synonymous with famed occult practitioner, Aleister Crowley. Here we meet Bowie the mystic, whose enduring presence feels right at home among the images and objects that currently surround us.

David Van Gough "Starcophagus" 2016 Mixed Media

David Van Gough, Mixed Media, “Starcophagus,” 2016.

Take David Van Gough’s “Starcophagus” for instance. This wooden pentagram-shaped box offers insight into Bowie’s creative process. Romano explains its function through demonstration. Carefully removing the lid, Romano’s hands reveal a pile of cut-up pieces of paper containing Bowie’s lyrics. “This was how he’d write his song,” says Romano, referring to the ancient occult practice of emptying the mind, allowing invisible forces to guide your hand.

“Talking of which”, says Romano, cutting to the chase. “Want to see if we can reach Bowie?” He rhetorically asks, placing Lizz Lopez’s custom made “Bowie Ouija Board” down in front of us. The board’s beautiful outer space motif perfectly suits the only semi-serious air that surrounds the proceedings. “What do you think of the show?” Romano gently asks the air. Bowie doesn’t immediately respond. Regardless, the intended effect is felt; a beam of good intention sent out into the Bowie-infused ether. A summoning of “Ground control to Major Tom.”

Lizz Lopez, “Bowie Ouija Board,” Ink on Board, 2016.

Lizz Lopez, “Bowie Ouija Board,” Ink on Board, 2016.

“Saint Bowie” is as amorphous as it’s inspiratory. It’s, less about who Bowie was, so much as what he meant to those he inspired. In that sense, this show is about his fans. It’s also telling that all profits from the show will be donated to Shadhika, an Indian women’s rights charity.

David Bowie travelled great distances, both in his music and stardom. In the end, through supreme talent, a measure of manipulation and what often seemed like an otherworldly connection, the man named David Jones became so much more than simply that. To those who listened, he was a Saint.

Saint Bowie runs through March 29 at the Stephen Romano Gallery in Bushwick.