Paintings You Won't Buy

This series of conceptual paintings was done for a show at Archway Gallery in 2007. The show was reviewed by Nick Keppler of the Houston Press, which is reprinted at the bottom of this page.

Adam and Eve
(Oil on Canvas, 20in x 24in, 2006)

This one came about when I was confronting the difficulties of finding a good model. In the past, I had resorted to using a GI Joe. One day I made the connection between Ken and Barbie with Adam and Eve. The metaphor is perfect: prelapsarian humanity with no brain and no sexuality just like the hollow, neutered, 'irresponsibly proportioned' dolls. Here they are arranged as though a child were re-enacting the story - suspended by strings with the ubiquitous bluebonnet landscape as backdrop and harmless toy tiger. Which brings to mind a story my wife told me about when she was at Catholic school in Hong Kong being taught these stories for the first time. Even as a child, she thought these stories were manufactured for children. She was greatly surprised to learn later that the Bible she read as a child was not a children's version, but in fact the same one used by adults.

Accepted into the Visual Arts Alliance Show, Houston, TX, October, 2007

Original painting $500

Hitler in Heaven
(Oil on Canvas, 12in x 24in, 2007)

Well, I hope this one doesn't get you too angry because it is quite a shocking image. Honestly, I had many doubts about painting it. But one evening when I was discussing Christianity with a friend he coincidentally mentioned the idea of Hitler in heaven as a consequence of certain doctrines. From that point, I decided I would do the piece.

So what's the deal? What inspired this was the idea of redemption. Who gets to go to heaven? Does faith alone provide the ticket or are good works mandatory? The Protestants generally believe the former alone is required whereas the Catholics believe both are important. These doctrines are very problematic.

If faith alone were all that is required, then Hitler, being a baptized Roman Catholic and firmly believing he was doing God's work, would be found in Heaven.

If goods works are required, then perhaps Hitler will go to Hell. But even the idea of Hell itself is difficult to accept. If God is all-good, then how can he condemn his own creation to eternity in hell? How can God escape responsibility? As Melville's Ahab said "Who's to judge when the judge himself is brought before the bar?"

Perhaps Hell does not exist. This would be more in line with a benevolent God. If so, we have universal redemption - God forgives all including Hitler. Philosophers have toyed with the idea, beginning with the third century theologian Origen. Of course, this has problems as well. If we are to be forgiven, why bother to be good at all? What role does the Church need to play? Needless to say, Origen was condemned by the Church, which led the nineteenth-century theologian Christian Gottlieb Barth to comment, "Anyone who does not believe in universal redemption is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass."

In this piece, I have taken Raphael's famous work of the Sistine Madonna (which hangs in Dresden), preferring this piece because of the popularity of the image of the cherubs.

I replaced the Virgin with you know who, using a still from a film of Hitler's famous jig after the fall of France, and expanded the lower half of the piece to show some of Hitler's handiwork using photos from the Holocaust. In this sense, the balustrade may be thought of as a divider between Heaven and Earth.

Another issue this piece brings up is the complicity of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. Hard to believe, but no senior Nazi was ever excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Gone were the days when a Pope could bring an Emperor to heel, as when Pope Gregory VII famously forced Emperor Henry IV to kneel in the snow to obtain absolution.

One could also interpret the lower half of the painting as Hell itself. Since Jews are not baptized, one could interpret Christian doctrine that eternal damnation awaits them. Such thinking has fostered much anti-Semitism, thus bring us back to Hitler again.

Original painting SOLD

The Unanswered Question
(Oil on Canvas, 22in x 30in, 2007)

Though this appears strikingly morbid, I like to think of this piece as very life affirming. Some years ago I read "Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker and I considered the same title for this painting. My mortality is almost always on my mind and the passing of time weighs heavily. As I have gotten older, the time passes faster and faster, which increases the immediacy of the fact of my death. So I often ask myself "Is this the best use of my short time? What should I be doing? How would I live if I had no fear?" Tough questions with no answers. Hence, the title. To personalize this painting, I put my own name on the monument.

Original painting SOLD

Phone Mask
(Oil on Canvas, 18in x 24in, 2007)

This still life is inspired by the idea of the mask. How people can change faces quickly in different circumstances. In particular, this is about how people can seem to be over the phone. How peace, calm and happiness can be projected without the intrusion of a visual image, which may explain why the digital phone never took off. More generally, consider that how people behave in their own homes may be radically different than the mask they wear in public.

Original painting SOLD

(Oil on Canvas, 16in x 24in, 2006)

This idea came to me while reading a short essay by E.B. White on the joys of brown eggs. I though it would be wonderful to use objects of different colors as a metaphor for human differences. Eggs were just the start. I later added the grapes, apples, lemons and then the flowers.

Original painting SOLD

Still Death
(Oil on Canvas, 24in x 16in, 2007)

The form of the still life often contains symbols of death, called memento mori, meant to contrast with the sumptuous, living fruits and flowers depicted by their side. The most common of these symbols is the skull, which servers to remind us of our mortality. In this still life, the entire arrangement becomes a memento mori, where all the objects are in the various stages of decay. I arranged both rotten and eaten fruits beneath an orchid in the process of dropping its flowers. Rather than a skull, I included a mold of my upper teeth I had done some years ago.

Honorable Mention, Visual Arts Alliance Show, Houston, TX, October, 2008

Original painting SOLD

(Oil on Canvas, 16in x 30in, 2006)

I have often compared the shape of stringed instruments to the female body. This is not a new idea, as Man Ray once painted the f-holes (yes, that's what they are called) onto a photo of a woman's back, which was later plagiarized in the poster for the film 'The Red Violin'. This particular violin is a 1920 piece by Giuseppe Castagnino, which was loaned to me by my good friend and conductor/violinist Tomasz Golka. I decided to call the piece Muse since it is this female god that inspires artists.

Original painting NOT FOR SALE

Pixel Hell
(Oil on Canvas, 12in x 30in, 2006)

Displaying nudes has always been an interesting experience. There seems to be many people who can't handle the idea of a naked person - even when very non-sexual. Perhaps this is a reflection of their own body shame. Further, many art shows do not allow nudity. In this work, I took a highly sexual image and blurred out all the 'naughty bits' in a digital style reminiscent of Japanese video pornography I used to see on my business trips there.

Original painting SOLD

The Day After
(Oil on Paper, 15in x 23in, 2006)

This one is inspired by all those poor Christmas trees, worshiped one day and discarded the next, that can be found in everyone's trash pickup after the new year. Some time in early January my neighbor tossed his, even though it was plastic. So I took it out of his trash and one day when the weather was right (partial overcast for the right degree of dreariness) I drove around Katy looking for a nice stretch of road. I shot some pictures and the next day the poor thing was in my trash. I wonder what he thought.

So what did you do with your tree?

Accepted into the Visual Arts Alliance Show, Houston, TX, October, 2006

Original painting SOLD

(Oil on Canvas, 18in x 48in, 2007)

Every time I go to a museum I get inspired and intimidated at the same time. I often come back to the studio dwelling on the works I had seen and thinking of ways to extract techniques and ideas for my own. It is always very tempting to me to try to copy a great master - just to see if I can create something beautiful. The last time this happened was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York looking a one of Monet's water lily paintings. The alluring figure is the temptress/muse egging me on to copy the master. So I did. I just did a copy of a Monet painting about not copying a Monet painting.

(The other side of this is that when I go to a museum, there are lots of attractive women around and sometimes I can't focus on the damn art.)

Original painting SOLD

Paintings You Won't Buy/Pots You Won't Use

John Slaby wants to provoke thought, not sell paintings
by Nick Keppler, Houston Press

John Slaby prefers the term 'thought-provoking' to 'provocative' to describe his work in the Archway Gallery's 'Paintings You Won't Buy/Pots You Won't Use'. That's certainly one way to describe images of a couple having sex in a graveyard, a buxom blond wearing nothing but high heels and an O-face, and two Catholic Saints bowing before Hitler.

"I had a lot of hesitance to do this show" says Slaby, whose work appears alongside Yvonne Lee's nonfunctional ceramics. "I didn't want to be seen as a shock artist." He adds, "I want people to know these are ideas I think are honestly worth exploring."

The Unanswered Question depicts Glenwood Cemetery with a couple in the throes of passion beneath a large headstone. Slaby says it's an image of contrasting symbols. "I can't think of anything more life-affirming than the act of love," he says.

Pixel Hell features a woman in a peep-show pose with Cops-style digital blurs covering her naughty bits. Slaby says the effect was inspired by actual porn broadcasts in Japan. "I've always had trouble showing nudes," he says. "There's always some level of discomfort when you show them in a public space. Well, this is the most tantalizing image I could possibly do that's not technically a nude."

Hitler in Heaven is a retooling of Raphael's Sistine Madonna with the Nazi dictator standing with Saints Sixtus and Barbara instead of the Holy Mother. Below the often-copied image of two cherubs is a shriveled body representing "Hitler's handiwork," says Slaby. "I wanted to explore the theme of universal redemption and that God is all good and forgives everyone. If that's the case, even the worst people make it to Heaven."

The show stems from Slaby's frustrations with the gallery world. "I think every artist feels a pull between painting what they want and painting what's going to sell," he says. "This is purely what I want." He did sell one piece, a still-life featuring a carton of eggs among the usual fruits and flowers. Still no bids on holy Hitler, though.

Nick was wrong, I sold "Hitler in Heaven" right after this article appeared in the Press.