An artist’s aesthetic, as William Kentridge once noted, often comes into existence by way of that which has been let in out of necessity. An artist’s cosmology, however, is built. Think Henry Darger’s (1)Vivian Girls, or Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Mounds” and “Vegans.” Cosmologies produce an aesthetic, not the other way around.

Sometimes cosmological worldbuilding is spatial. Though interactive, online, and no longer extant, Cao Fei’s RMB City was a sort of cosmology. It was a world created through the unique amalgam of restraints and features intrinsic to the Second Life platform, and (2)Fei’s own vision of a Chinese capitalist utopia circa 2009. Now existing as a legacy website (still possible to engage with indirectly via Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology), this Virtual City became a meeting point for artists and other humans who enriched and activated Fei’s world with their own experiences. Likewise, spatial worldbuilding can happen inside of the work, such as in painter Magalie Guérin’s abstractions. For a number of years in the early twenty-teens, Guérin’s paintings would begin with what she came to call (3)“the hat shape,” around which forms and patterns were deleted, molded, strangled, and revealed. The staunch rubric of the hat shape, embedded as it is in the deeper strata of these paintings, builds a world inside of and between them as a character might.

Indeed, cosmologies are perhaps most often character-driven. Kent Monkman’s alter ego “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” is a figure through whom it is possible to reimagine the entirety of settler-colonial history, as seen from the perspective of an empowered two-spirited person who is (at last) completely in charge of the narrative. From Miss Chief’s standpoint one, views Canadian history through the (4)oppressed’s side of the looking glass, and the view of the oppressor is disquieting, to say the least. Through this character, historical fact is called out for the fiction that it is, and new stories are forcibly – and at times violently – inserted into the Western canon.

In this editorial provocation, I have naturally set up an impossible dichotomy (since indeed, all dichotomies are impossible). Talk of an artist’s aesthetic verses an artist’s cosmology could simply be a matter of chicken-or-the-egg, depending on one’s perspective. Take for example, Tala Madani’s work, a smorgasbord of male buffoonery and fecal matter that one could argue builds an oeuvre of transgression that is a universe unto itself. But one could also imagine that without Madani’s deft painterly gesturing, so sparse and borderline designerly in its execution, that these repeating subjects and motifs could be mistaken for schadenfreude, or even scheissefreude. Aesthetic and cosmology “become” together. Likewise, I’m led to think of Philip Guston, Marcel Dzama, and Paul McCarthy, each creating their own worlds with their own aesthetics and characters that begin as borrowed until they’re owned. I wonder, dear artist reader, if you, like me, have questioned within your own work whether or not the line between diarism and worldbuilding small, and difficult to walk? The aforementioned artists, each so very unique in their perspective, and yet by no means navel gaze-y in their output, seem to walk this line like Philippe Petit on a tightrope between skyscrapers. Enviably comfortably, after years of practice.

  1. A fabulous collection of Darger’s work and studio used to be possible to view at Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, but the website states that his has been “temporarily de-installed.” Hopefully it will be re-installed in the not-to-distant future (December 15th, 2021)
  2. (China Tracy’s)
  3. Also known to Guerin as the chair shape, the clover, or the uterus
  4. It seems that Microsoft’s Word considers “oppressor’s” to be grammatically correct, while “oppressed’s” is erroneous. Can one assume that this is because Microsoft believes that nothing belongs to the oppressed?


Stay tuned for next month’s Bad at Art Forum edition, on PLASTIC… (those who stay ready do not have to get ready 😉 )

Keeley Haftner
Follow me