Remembering Snake Skeletons and a Cherry Red Impala
On the 21st September, a second solo exhibition by 24-year-old English-born American artist, Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon, will open at the Whiteconcepts space in Berlin. Titled The Plague Year, it will expand his meticulous exploration of syncretic religious, mediaeval and ‘pop’ iconography, cartography and lexicology – this time, within an exotic, decaying dystopia detailed in more than 25 very finely detailed monochromatic works.
Finn’s last exhibition at Whitespace, two years ago, was one of the most successful openings for a young artist in Berlin that year. Introduced by the controversial German artist, Jonathan Meese, the entire show sold out within 48 hours.
Born in Brighton, England, Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon grew up among creative, nomadic types in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles before returning as a teenager to Sydney.
But as he recalls in the following brief memoir, it was his childhood memories of being often on the road with his eccentric parents in the American southwest that gave him a lot of the imagery that still populates his work.
I spent my early childhood in the southwest of the United States. My mother was part-Cherokee, born and raised in Oklahoma, and my father was an Australian, but we lived for a long time in Los Angeles. We would often drive between the west coast and my mother’s family in Tulsa, but we’d take these circuitous routes on un-mapped back-roads, adding days and hundreds of miles to a journey that was already fifteen hundred miles long via the direct route on Interstate 40, through desert towns like Barstow and Winslow and Albuquerque.
I still remember the weird roadhouses we stopped at, filled with faux-Native American trinkets, and Mexican candied skulls, as well as petrified tree fragments, fossils and pebbles of polished turquoise. We’d end each day in some rickety, half-dead town in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, staying in a cheap motel with a swimming pool and a noisy ice-machine. Sometimes, we’d be so close to the Mexican border that it made no difference which side of it you were on – it could just as well have been Mexico but with better air-conditioning – and at that time of the year, the whole place would be overtaken with unsettling (but to a young kid, exciting) syncretic symbols and rituals, part Catholic, part ancient Toltec, part Hopi or Navajo, with black-robed Madonnas, painted skulls and masks, crucifixes and snake skeletons. It was never scary and solemn, only celebratory, not just honouring the dead but inviting them to a party, to spend time among friends and family. The barbecue smoke always smelled of mesquite.
Later, when I became an artist working on large, intricate drawings in ink on paper, the impressions of those road trips insinuated themselves into what I drew: skulls on snake bodies, ’60s neon signs, tattooed women and grinning death-heads, the Robert Williams-influenced cars (my parents drove a cherry-red Chevy Impala SuperSport). Even the modern military references were derived from fleeting glimpses of fighters and tanks arrayed on open tracts of desert, at Nellis or Luke air force bases, or Camp Navajo. They seemed as commonplace as the motels, drive-in diners and cheesy girlie bars that littered our route.
–Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon-
Below: Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon, photographed in Kreuzberg by Lotti Leona, 2015