18 October 2014

Film Review - Art of Darkness (2014) - Raindance Film Festival

Rating: NA
Screening Status:UK Premiere
UK Release Date:TBC
David Parker
Bryan Lewis Saunders

Art of Darkness is a documentary film about artist/musician Bryan Lewis Saunders who has been painting a self-portrait every day since 1995. 

Saunders started painting the self-portraits during college when he came to the decision and realisation that this was his calling in life.  He sees the portraits as a way of "growing his feelings" and purging negative thought. It’s more about the act than necessarily the end product, an art therapy of sorts, however as we see in the film, the portraits are all stunning and uniquely beautiful in their own way.

Over the years Saunders has amassed over 10,000 paintings, which are all kept in sketchbooks in his tiny one bedroom flat in Johnson City, Tennessee.  The portraits vary greatly in style, some are emotional scribbles, some are greatly detailed.

In the film Saunders is very open about his varying mental state, and feels the importance of capturing it.  He’s not afraid to confront his fears and deplores the audience to “find out what tortures you and explore it” as he does with his artwork.  He talks about knowing what state of mind he is in through his self-portraits, whether he should leave the house or not, depending on what colours he has used. 

As Saunders beautifully puts it “you just have to give a shit and care", there is so much care and dedication in everything the man does and it really comes through in this documentary.  Saunders is a very proactive and creative person, aswell as the portraits he creates experimental music and seems to have a variety of projects on the go at any one time. He talks about the time he taught himself Chinese with the idea to become a Chinese stand-up comedian, only to go to China and find out they don’t have stand up comedy there! 

There’s one aspect of his self-portraits which Saunders is maybe most well-known for, a series of paintings in which he painted himself whilst under the influence of a variety of legal and illegal substances.  These paintings have been constantly shared on social media and instantly I recognized them, partly cause earlier this year we decided his mushrooms self-portrait looked uncannily like my brother!  These drugs paintings really captured the emotion of stoners across the world and helped give the self-portraits project more recognition.  Then writer Jon Ronson wrote a piece about Saunders in The Guardian, giving his address in the article and Saunders was inundated with drugs being sent through the mail to his home!

Personally I think the drugs paintings are interesting enough, however I find the project as a whole more fascinating.  The drugs paintings have a somewhat literal approach to them (eg. the adderal painting is of him as an adder) which gets a bit tiresome.   However in the Ronson interview Saunders himself said that he “hates drugs but feels obliged to try new ones” makes the project have some weight to it, as more an exploratory process and a drive to complete the study as opposed to just seen how messed up he can get.  It must be noted that press around the drug painting helped to give the project as a whole the recognition it deserved and also helped the film-makers, David Parker and Randy Holder to discover Saunders’ work.

Saunders is instantly likeable and his wholly self-aware attitude is very engaging and makes the film very entertaining.  He also has a great humour to the telling his story, despite the somewhat dark and difficult times in his life.  This is a fascinating tale about an interesting man and I urge you to seek this movie out.


Alice Hubley

The film was premiered at Raindance 2014 and is showing at various film festivals around the world though no news yet of a UK release.

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