The Dark and The Wounded: Bringing Our Demons Out on Alcatraz

Update: This post initially contained ambiguous language about a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. It has since been corrected. 

When a friend of artist James Picard told him that she dreaded going home for the holidays to her father who repeatedly raped both her and her sister, Picard was appropriately horrified. It wasn’t something that was addressed in her family, she explained. And it is truly bloodcurdling to think not only of a man raping his children — but then for these children to have no way to deal with their demons. But for them, it simply wasn’t talked about.

[jump] The conversation stuck with Picard, who eventually ended up painting a portrait of this friend — which led to more portraits of wounded characters. And while the process was a somber one, Picard felt as though he had tapped into something. While his friend might not be able to talk or even understand her pain, Picard was giving her a voice when she didn’t necessarily feel as though she had one.

“We all have wounds and darkness,” says Picard. “If we don’t address wounds, then they don’t heal.”

He showed his series of portraits to several curators, all of whom told him the paintings were too disturbing to be hung. No stranger to gallery exhibitions — his “easier” works have been shown in countless galleries internationally — Picard decided to stay with the series. All he needed was a place to show them.

These paintings eventually grew to be part of his ongoing project, The Dark and The Wounded. And while galleries might not have had the stomach for the pieces, Picard soon found a location that would. Or, rather, locations. For the past three years, the artist has displayed the work (usually during a live painting performance) to various decommissioned psychiatric hospitals, abandoned prisons and schools — even a dilapidated Nazi concentration camp in Poland — because, as Picard puts it, “What better place to display them than in dark and wounded places in society? It’s like the paintings belong in there. There’s just a [similar] energy in the buildings and an energy in the paintings.”

“When people are interacting with the work I want them out of their comfort zone,” he says. He compares seeing thought-provoking work in a gallery to watching tragedies unfold on the TV news in the comfort of the viewers own home. “It’s so much more visceral when you’re right amongst it. And that was the thought; to get people out of their comfort zones so that they’re having more of a visceral response to the art, instead of standing back with a glass of wine,” he explains. “Lessen that distance between it and you’ll get more of an impact.”

During the tour of The Dark and The Wounded, Picard and his crew film each live painting event. In 2016, the footage will make up a documentary by the same name. And San Francisco — and its notoriously twisted Alcatraz — were an obvious destination for their work.

“The buildings that I go into — whether they’re abandoned asylums, or hospitals, or prisons or jails, they’re all harboring this dark energy. It’s a little uncomfortable, but we can all relate to it because we are all human.”

And so while the project is a weighty one, it’s an important one as well. For Picard, the goal is simply to attempt to bring a little help and attention to those who need it. “We’re all part of the human race,” he says. “It’s not an 'us vs. them' thing, it’s an 'us' thing.”

James Picard presents The Dark and Wounded, Tuesday, May 5, 8:15 p.m., on Alcatraz, $500.

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