Vanitas for our Age

By Lauren Tilden

An unexpected melding of two worlds struck a dissonant chord which resonated across the internet recently when Kanye West revealed his video “Famous,” inspired by artist Vincent Desiderio’s “Sleep.” For those in the world of fine arts, it might have produced a disgruntled sigh to think it would take West to make Desiderio a household name and not the other way around. That notwithstanding, West’s video—a gut-felt, disconcerting, and honest portrayal of the human condition—caused an animated commotion across the social media spheres.

Image courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Gallery.
“Sleep,” Vincent Desiderio, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Gallery.

The awareness of West’s tribute to Desiderio’s painting came to Desiderio through mysterious means. As he recalls in a recent NPR interview, Desiderio received a phone call informing him that Kanye West would like to meet him. At the urging of his children, Desiderio agreed and was soon flown to Los Angeles. Before even checking into his hotel, he was whisked away to meet West and his entourage, when it was revealed to him for the first time that West had created a video which paid homage to Desiderio’s painting, “Sleep.” While they sat and watched the video, Desiderio was both honored and flabbergasted to realize he and West were on a similar wavelength.The video is a slow-moving pan across contemporary “gods” in their most vulnerable human state: sleeping. Similar to the Hellenistic friezes (think Pergamon altar) whose gods and heroes are forever laid out in a slowly deconstructing marble sheen, even so West displays the gods of this age in a waxy, deathlike sleep. These idols, which we worship on Instagram and Buzzfeed, are symptomatic of a rejection of the God of the Bible. The irony in this is clear: American culture has deemed West and the rest as gods, and he is saying we are wrong. We cannot call to these gods for help, for they do slumber.

Here is where the wavelength shared by Desiderio and West begins to diverge slightly before it reconnects. Desiderio does not paint silicone-filled celebrities, but rather the real, dimpled flesh of humanity. He calls them “slumbering idiots,” giant babies buoyantly tumbling in a world of sleep and blankets. They are a far cry from gods. However, one cannot deny a deep sense that each brush stroke reflects an act of reverence, even love, for those slumbering idiots. I was curious as to how Desiderio could begin a painting with a degree of disgust for the subjects but eventually come to feel compassion for his sleepers. He responded, “In regard to the ‘slumbering idiots’ quote, I really meant that they were oblivious. Some of them are sleeping on children’s sheets and blankets. This, in my mind, was a reference less to childlike innocence than to childish attitudes. Still, the loving attention to light falling across their forms made it impossible for me to dismiss the image with an officious critique. A degree of empathy coats the painting and in fact eventually drove my decisions. It is this quality that I found in Kanye West’s video.”

A dear friend and fellow painter, Catherine Prescott, taught me this profound idea: “Of course it follows that you come to love the person through the act of painting, of attending to those details. I’m pretty sure this is the case with God, that we are his best paintings.” When Catherine initially mentioned this in a conversation, I was first struck by my blind inattentiveness and secondly by the truth of her statement. Desiderio, in his role as creator, has fallen in love with his creation. The painter who lovingly toils over his masterpiece of slumbering figures is also a narrative of our Creator, who watches over us and whose song is with us while we sleep. “And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42: 8b). Comparable to God’s relationship with his creation, Desiderio’s is that of a parent to a stubborn and rebellious child, one he can still look on with love while she peacefully slumbers and see the Imago Dei.

In a similar fashion to our vigilant God, Desiderio does not sleep but is constantly refining his creation. “Sleep” has undergone countless revisions at his hand: beginning with numerous studies in 2003, to a 12-figure version in 2005, and several additional figures added in 2008. When I visited Desderio’s studio in 2005, he spoke of yet another version, a giant video of sleeping individuals, projected on the ceiling high over the busy travelers of Grand Central Station—a Sistine Chapel of sorts. However, when I asked Desiderio about the Sistine Chapel’s role in inspiring “Sleep” he countered, “The reference to the Sistine Chapel was probably more about Michelangelo in general and his obsession with a kind of serpentine interlocking of figures. It’s something we see in a work as early as the Battle of the Centaurs (made when he was 17) and in the Last Judgment, painted as a much older man.”

Image courtesy of the artist
“Study After Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs,” Vincent Desiderio, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Gallery.

With the thought of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in mind, I can not help but wonder if these two works—Desiderio’s and West’s—might reflect a sort of “Last Judgment.” One day the celebrities will be forgotten, and one day even the marble friezes will return to dust. While I sit here writing this, a gospel rendition of “When we all get to Heaven” plays in the background, yet for West’s characters there is only a sleeping death. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” (Ec: 1:2), cries West, while Desiderio responds with the ending to that ecclesiastical lament, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ec: 12:1). Here lies the power of art to convey truth, even if it comes through the unexpected citing of a Desiderio painting in a Kanye West video. West reveals the false idols we so often erect on the altars of our heart, and Desiderio reminds us that, despite the idolatry, we have a God who still loves his creation.

“‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.)
 But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord. ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water'” (Jer. 2:11-14).


Lauren Tilden received her M.F.A. from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied with Sidney Goodman, Vincent Desiderio and Patrick Connors. She is a three-time recipient of grants from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. She currently exhibits with Haynes Galleries in Nashville, and F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia. Lauren Tilden lives and works in the rural countryside where the landscape serves as a backdrop for her life-affirming and poetic paintings. For more, go to laurentilden.com.

3 Responses to Vanitas for our Age

  1. I agree. This review seems deeper and yet more understandable to this non-artist than other art reviews or critiques I have read.