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Self-portraits on drugs

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Laura Wilson discusses the art project which caused a huge stir; Bryan Lewis Saunders’ series of self-portraits which were each created on a different drug.

Self-portrait under the influence of marijuana Image credit: Bryan Lewis Saunders via the Huffington Post
Self-portrait under the influence of marijuana
Image credit: Bryan Lewis Saunders via the Huffington Post

Bryan Lewis Saunders’ collection of self-portraits on different drugs started as an extension of the classical genre of self-portraiture. But Saunders’ artistic attempts are far from classical. In 1995 he challenged himself to draw one self-portrait every day, for the rest of his life – a noble feat that shows a commitment to his craft. By 2001, however Saunders was searching for more and more drastic ways to present his own image and turned to almost 50 prescription, recreational and illegal drugs to induce an altered state of mind, from which to draw himself.

Saunders describes his ‘Drugs’ project as an ‘experiment’ and explains “within weeks I became lethargic and suffered mild brain damage.” He posits that for his own health he is ‘still conducting this experiment but over greater lapses of time’ and that he only takes ‘drugs that are given to me.’ Whilst this may look like an attempt to highlight the (sometimes permanently) mind-altering effects of drugs, and a mild disclaimer of ‘Don’t Try This At Home’, Saunders artistic career is in fact, completely caught up in altering his environment, finding new ways to induce dreams and hallucinations and does little to promote any kind of ethics against taking drugs.

Other pieces in Saunders’ oeuvre include distorted albums made up of the artist speaking out his delirious fantasies, and a stream of consciousness comic book illustrated by Ed Pinsent, all of which betray a dark fascination with drug culture and how narcotics can be used to escape the body. When Pinsent reviewed Saunders’ record ‘Spastic Dementia’ he suggested that the “abiding message seems to be that life is brutally painful and inhuman so you decide to take drugs to escape it; then the drugs cause even worse things to happen, and then you die – and you find your troubles are only just beginning” to which Saunders replied: “I was afraid people would not get [this]!!!! I was afraid that it be [sic] over their heads.”

Image credit: Bryan Saunders via the Huffington Post
Image credit: Bryan Saunders via the Huffington Post

Except people have been ‘getting’ mind-altered art for centuries. It is highly speculated that the evocative colours of Vincent Van Gogh’s celebrated Starry Night were a reflection of the effects that lead poisoning was having on Van Gogh’s mind, as he came into too close contact with the lead based paint he used on his canvases. Like Saunders, he too suffered from hallucinations; one reason absinthe was such a popular drink in late 19th century France is because of the widespread belief among Parisian bohemian artists, that it induced helpful visions for their work. Even if Saunders only takes each drug to facilitate a single portrait, he is still in conversation with the artistic experimentation of Salvador Dali who expressed ‘everyone should eat hashish, but only once.’ Whilst Saunders is the most popular result when one searches ‘artists who took drugs’, he is by no means the first, though his attempts have probably gone further than most.

The portraits went viral in 2011, but by this point they were over a decade old, leading us to question Saunders’ motives for these works of art. Were they a personal experiment to draw out greater nuances in the techniques of self-portraiture? Were they intended to cause a stir in public? Perhaps Saunders attempted to bring together psychology and art and answer scientific questions about the effects of drugs, using an artistic medium. Or perhaps he’s just crazy. Whatever the answer, Saunders’ drug portraits invite the viewer to ask a multitude of questions as all art (and probably a lot of drugs) enables us to do.

View more of Saunders’ self-portraits on drugs, and his other work, here on his website.

Laura Wilson

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