We Vessels of Existence: Jesse Mockrin at Night Gallery

Jesse Mockrin, Nightfall, 2021–2022. Oil on cotton. 152 x 110 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Marten Elder.

Bound limbs and smooth skin transfix against the rough grit of tree bark and foliage. A gradient from saffron yellow to something akin to white wine frames the rest of the composition. The stark background colors contrast the ethereal light that dapples itself over the subjects in the foreground. We see two halves of a single scene. On the left, a flurry of arms, a torso, and folded fabric. A sequence loaded with frenzied inertia. The right is much more subdued. A figure pushes their body towards the left with an outward arm, bound and its direction set towards the right. A collection of trees and dried earth join the two halves, creating a cohesive narrative. 

Transfiguration (2021–2022) by Jesse Mockrin serves as a compilation piece for the story of religious martyr Saint Sebastian. Rendered in Mockrin’s signature post-Old Master’s realist style, the diptych condenses the timeline of Saint Sebastian’s persecution, healing, and subsequent death. We see each chapter of this narrative play out. The initial persecution, hinted by his arrow-ridden body bound to a tree. His rescue and healing by the sympathetic Saint Irene, highlighted by delicate hands attempting to extract the arrows. Finally we see his demise and disposal with the omission of any facial expression. The work is one of many included in her solo show Reliquary at Night Gallery, Los Angeles. 

Jesse Mockrin, Transfiguration, 2021–2022 (installation view, Night Gallery, Los Angeles, CA). Oil on cotton. 90 x 124 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Marten Elder.

The account of Saint Sebastian has been recited throughout history. Arrows piercing his torso and his bound body emerge from the hands and minds of countless artists. The paintings in Reliquary hearken back to works by artists such as Hendrick Brugghen, François-Xavier Fabre, and Lodovico Carracci among others. Utilizing the past as source material, Mockrin’s paintings segment and crop larger scenes. What materializes is a more focused and detail-oriented glimpse of the narrative.

The paintings in Reliquary are presented in a non-linear fashion. As one moves through the space, fragments of the story begin to appear. Smaller works depict intimate scenes such as his bound hands, while larger works provide a much more comprehensive visual. There is a warmth and glow that radiates from the bodies portrayed in each work, reminding us that what we are seeing is the existence of the living, rather than the departure of life. This warmth provides a sense of tenderness to the work, contrasting the tension within each scene.

Each work presents a sort of poignant dynamism. The paintings contain a kind of weight—sometimes it is hinted at by the subtle variations of luminosity on the skin or by sweeping motions of the arms and textiles in the scenes. The face of Saint Sebastian himself is the only one depicted. Other figures within these compositions remain faceless and almost anonymous, their identities only revealed through prior knowledge of the story. His skin is smooth and free of any lacerations or indications of trauma. The arrows seem to grow from the torso rather than puncture. Facial expressions border on nonchalant a contrast to the pain being inflicted. What is mortality? How can one be so unfazed by such a malignant act? 

Jesse Mockrin, Rapture (Day), 2022. Oil on cotton. 72 1/2 x 34 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Marten Elder.
Jesse Mockrin, Rapture (Night), 2022. Oil on cotton. 72 1/2 x 34 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Marten Elder.

While the paintings in the show provide a representational visual narrative, two works uncover a much more introspective outlook. The two diptychs Rapture (Night) (2022) and Rapture (Day) (2022) vertically separate celestial bodies from earthly ones. In Rapture (Night), we see the moon nestled amongst sparse clouds. Saint Sebastian’s skin bathed in moonlight, his gaze is focused downward with confident angst. Rapture (Day) depicts the sun bathed in a foreboding fog above a bound Saint Sebastian. With an arrow embedded in his stomach, he looks up to the sky with uncertainty in his eyes. 

A reliquary is a container for religious objects and sacred relics. The work of Jesse Mockrin does more than just tell the story of a religious martyr, it questions the multifaceted nature of human life. Memory and experience carry unique, intimate significance for every person. A monumentality accompanies even the most mundane occurrences. But humans are inherently fragile entities; physical and mental burdens create fissures in even the most resilient of beings. The works in Reliquary do not provide just a personal account of a single individual. Instead, they reinforce the trials and tribulations that we face day by day. They are vessels that hold the complexities of existence.

Jesse Mockrin: Reliquary
May 14 – June 18
Night Gallery, Los Angeles, CA

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