Even if you haven't heard Marshall Arisman's name, you have seen his work, if not in a gallery then in Time or Esquire or Rolling Stone. It is unimistakable — dark, disturbing, vaguely paranoid. "Hs work rivets the eye and the mind," writes novelist Paul Theroux. "It is direct and seems unambiguous, but there is inevitably shadow behind it."
Arisman paints and draws ... well, creatures, animals, vague hybrids of human and animal, humans as animals — what one reviewer has called "enthralling characters both dangerous and vulnerable, violent and sublime." Theroux writes : "One of the first things I noticed in his pictures was the animal quality of his humans — animalistic in their mute fear or helplessness: his people so often seemed trapped or terrorized; and his animals — reindeers, monkeys, cats — have an enduring humanity, and not just lovable but often god-like. This is not a paradox: he is a master at portraying postures and expressions."
For over forty years, Arisman has been a painter, sculptor, illustrator, novelist, and filmmaker; his paintings and drawings have been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. Theroux calls him "an enchanter, a shaman." Arisman himself says, "My intent, whether I reach it or not, is to make magic. For me, the process of painting is simply a meditation process, and the meditation is to get out of my rational brain ... I actually think that we are animals with a sense of spirituality, so I’m fascinated by animals carrying certain kinds of knowledge. I see auras, so I painted them around people. And then I thought, "Well, animals can be equally sacred."
"At the moment I’m doing a series of what I call 'cave paintings', and all the shamans in the caves — the people who did these drawings — were trying to move from the material world to the spiritual world, and they all had animal helpers. So I’m now doing a series of humans transforming into animals. That’s basically what it is."
These shamanic cave paintings have now been entitled The Ayahuasca Series. A complete set of the drawings is here; and the following is a brief video of the artist at work on the series:
I am not sure why these drawings are called The Ayahuasca Series. But there is, I think, something deeply shamanic about Arisman's dark vision, his perceptions of interpenetrating human and animal forms, his awareness of profound and troubling mysteries at the heart of the ordinary. Paul Theroux puts it this way: "I'm convinced Marshall knows what the afterlife is. He just won't tell anybody because it's so fucking perverse."
Note: Director Tony Silver has made an eighty-minute feature-length documentary film devoted to Arisman's life and work, entitled Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience, which won the prize for Creative and Artistic Achievement at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. A trailer for the film is here. It is not clear to me if the film has been completed and, if so, released. I would be grateful for any further information.