By Alex Downham
A new documentary produced by a Ryerson graduate documents the mesmerizing self-portraits of Bryan Lewis Saunders, the man best known for creating self-portraits under the influence of a variety of drugs.
The film, Art of Darkness, premiered at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival Nov. 14, which took place at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The documentary is the first feature-length film for alumnus David Parker, an award-winning writer, producer and director. Art of Darkness reveals “sociopathic tendencies” in Saunder’s self-portrait series.
“The movie is about art and art as therapy,” Parker said in a panel. “At first, I thought I could pin a psychological disposition on Bryan, but I still have no clue.”
Since March 1995, 43-year-old Saunders has drawn a self portrait every day. Driven by “desperation” and an “obsession with pain,” the painter’s series includes mores than 10,000 self-portraits.
“When I do these paintings it’s like an exorcism,” Saunders said in the film. “Unless I go into a coma or have a heavy stroke, I’ll never miss a day until I die.”
Saunders is known for his 11 day “drug series” of self-portraits which he drew under the influence of numerous drugs. The artist got high on drugs including hash, heroin, lighter fluid, cough syrup and angel dust.
“I was getting drugs by mail from project supporters,” Saunders said in the panel. “Eventually I had to stop because it just took too much of a toll on my brain. It was insane.”
The outcome was stylistically scattered. While his hash self-portrait is full of vivid, pastel colours, his bath salts sketch looks almost inhuman, borderline unrecognizable.
This series is what sparked Parker’s interest in Saunders. After seeing the series in 2012, Parker contacted the artist.
“I knew there was more to this guy than just one work,” Parker said. “It was hard to get in touch though because he initially thought I was a drug enforcement officer.”
After meeting Saunders, Parker discovered the artist’s fixation on personal trauma. In Art of Darkness, Saunders said his creative inspiration often comes from early interactions with “the bad people,” a malevolent, almost supernatural group.
“I would be afraid to come home as a kid because I thought they were around,” Saunders said. “I would perform ritualistic funerals in bed to make them believe I was dead already.”
As he aged, Saunders distanced himself from the living and became interested in death. As an adult, he recalls death closing in as neighbours passed away and a close friend attempted suicide.
“When my friend shot himself, I had to clean up the blood and tell his family what happened,” Saunders said in the film, pointing to an abstract self portrait of a robot. “It was scary. I eventually left the mess, but I remember feeling like a robot telling his relatives.”
Saunders said despite how painful his focus on trauma can be, it’s a way for him “to get the most experience out of life.”
“I want my work to give psychopaths a sense of feeling,” Saunders said in the panel. “The feelings in my self-portraits, spoken word and others need to be so intense that this group of people feel it too.”