It felt like a typical trip to a music venue; there was even a line down the street. Public Works Gallery had reached capacity and the room was packed. It’s pretty unheard of for an art show to reach its limit, but for a show like this, it makes sense. Pressing against a sea of black leather, I entered the space and immediately ran into people I knew, people whom I usually see at metal shows. We don’t bump into each other at art shows. We don’t converse between paintings and illustrations. Yet there we were, brought to the gallery by a shared love for metal and metalheads for the exhibit “You Will Die.”
The nine artists in the show are from around the world, some as close as Chicago, others as far as Poland, Russia, Israel, and Germany. Cocurated by Scott Shellhamer, a former member of metal band American Heritage, and Josh Zoerner of Public Works, the show is a way for them to invite their friends, peers, and idols to exhibit their work in a white-wall gallery, a rare occasion for this style of art.
In the gallery, a limited-run apparel line for the show was propped up in the back with two long-sleeve T-shirts and a crop top designed by Noelia Towers and Justin Bartlett. Marz Community Brewing even debuted a limited-release “You Will Die” beer, a Nordic Double IPA.
On the surface, the featured works of art seem to portray the obvious: terror, the macabre, darkness. The works have a heavy narrative and borrow from 16th-century paintings that depict the terrifying reality of human existence. However, these artists are responding to cultural, social, and economic structures in society that have contributed to the dread in the world.
Pushing around the people, the beer, and the merchandise (and even mac and cheese from go-to metal food joint Kuma’s Corner), I found myself incredibly drawn to the work of Eliran Kantor, a Berlin-based digital paint artist who has designed album covers for bands like Hatebreed, Gwar, and Aghora. His work is gory, morbid, and violent—and it’s absolutely breathtaking. The piece Hangman was commissioned by the band Artizan for their song “The Hangman” and features a person smiling, looking upwards in a joyful manner, as the lower halves of four bodies dangle above him. Metal art typically displays scenes of dystopian landscapes or a magical, mystical atmosphere. In Kantor’s work, the scenes nod at folklore and capture a moment that resembles an ancient tale. Here, we see a hangman enjoying himself as the bodies of those he hanged dangle with bells on the bottom of their feet. He waves a baton in his hand to orchestrate the sound of death.
On the back wall of the gallery are the paintings of Noelia Towers, whose work depicts the artist in settings that touch on her struggles with chronic illness and how sexuality and bondage tie into this experience. In the piece The Pain That Keeps on Giving she paints herself seated in an office chair with a black hood over her face and barbed wire around her abdomen. The figure is wearing black leather gloves and staring directly at the viewer. The barbed wire resembles her pain with ulcerative colitis, which manifests itself as tiny stabs to her lower half. Her body is harming itself, which is why Towers paints a ski mask over her head—she is her own executioner.
As someone within the metal scene, and grateful to finally see a metal art exhibition, I was at ease with those around me. I spotted friends I had never seen at an art show before. I had deep discussions about the work. While this is a solid foundation for a show of this theme, more metal artwork from women, people of color, and those within the LGBTQ community would have expanded the scope of the exhibition. “You Will Die” scratched the surface of metal art; it invited the heroes, the godfathers, and the successful. But I challenge the curators to expand on this theme in the future. The metal community is filled with white cis and straight men while women and people of color take a back seat. Nevertheless, they are present, and are more and more pushing toward the front of the stage and making themselves visible. There isn’t a lack of people of color or women in the scene. In fact, there is a laundry list of Black-and women-fronted bands like Straight Line Stitch, Myrkur, and Agoraphobic Nosebleed. These marginalized communities within the metal scene could have created a more diverse and powerful array of artwork. (Maybe next time, guys?)
“You Will Die” does what it intended to do. It celebrates the icons of extreme metal art and features work by artists who those in the scene admire. Most importantly, it is a reminder to question our dismal existence and emphasize the reality that yes, we will all die. v