Art and psychopathy are two subjects that never came together until 1922, when art historian and psychiatrist Dr. Hans Prinzhorn published his book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Captivated with the unique expressionism and creativity that came from mental wards and asylums operating across the country, Prinzhorn set out to show the world the thin line between genius and madness and to infiltrate an institutional culture that had a habit of distinguishing certain objects as art or non-art, depending upon the person who created these objects. In doing so he was able to find a happy medium between mainstream art and self-taught outsiders.
It would take nearly another 40 years before outsiders were able to find their place within the art community, when Andy Warhol and his band of misfits turned the art world upside down. Warhol’s highest grossing work, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), is one of the most famous pieces of art to combine artistic expression and the macabre. It explores our fascination with death and despair and brings us face-to-face with one of our own greatest fears. It would be an additonal 20 years before the elements of psychopathy, outsider artists, and our own morbid fascinations would join forces.
In the 1970s we saw serial killers like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson propelled to nearly superstar status. Like the “famous for being famous” superstars Warhol created, the network news created celebrities out of cold-blooded killers, but it is our own curiosity with the macabre that allowed them to keep their celebrity status. With little to do behind prison walls, it should come to no surprise that many of these celebrikillers took up arts and crafts to pass the time.
In the early 1980s, the most famous serial killer to infiltrate the art world was John Wayne Gacy. His whimsical paintings caught the attention of several outsider art collectors, and before long he was running his own mail-order business from his prison cell. Of course, this endeavor was not met without criticism.
Gacy continued on with his mail-order art business until his execution in 1994, in spite of the public outcry against it. Today, what paintings he created that were not destroyed by victim advocacy groups are highly sought after.
With the rise of internet commerce and auction websites like Ebay that had sprung up practically overnight, the nearly unheard of world of serial killer art and memorabilia slowly became accessible to anyone with enough funds to acquire these goods. In spite of this newfound ease of access, it was still very much considered a niche community reserved for elitists delving into the fringes of the art world.
In 2007, James Gilk had been working on a website for a French artist named Nico Claux. In 1994, Claux was arrested for the suspected murder of another man named Thierry Bissonnier. Bissonnier was only one of a string of murders occurring throughout the month of October 1994.
Inside Claux’s apartment investigators discovered urns full of human ashes, human bones, stacks of hardcore S&M magazines and video cassettes, as well as bags of blood from the blood bank. Claux also described to investigators how he enjoyed going to the graveyard to dig up bodies, drinking human blood mixed with human ashes and protein powder, and eating slabs of muscle from fresh cadavers.
With only enough evidence to tie Claux to the murder of Bissonnier, he was charged with one count of murder and six counts of grave robbery. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and was paroled in 2000. During his time in prison, like many killers who came before him, Claux took up art.
Gilk and his business partner, Kristopher Saunders, were so enamored with Claux’s paintings that they began to devise a plan that would allow them to bring the work of Claux to people in the US. Being broke college students at the time, both Gilk and Saunders decided that it would be too pricey for them to produce Claux’s works on their own and that a mainstream audience wouldn’t be interested in purchasing bulky, expensive gallery selections.
Like Dr. Pinzhorn who came before them to expose the world to art that would normally not be seen outside of institutional walls or elitist galleries, Gilk and Saunders were able to find a way to create an affordable “layperson’s gallery” for Claux’s works. Using Claux’s famous paintings of serial killer mugshots, the pair gave birth to The Serial Killer Calendar in 2007.
Word of the calendar spread fast. “I contacted the AP to do a story about two students producing the work of a ‘Real Life Hannibal’ to a US audience.” says Saunders. “Next, Reuters wanted to do a story and they did a good one. On the day it hit the press, James and I were setting up the site, making Paypal buttons, working on graphics. All of a sudden the Paypal ringer started going off and it didn’t stop, literally.”
Since then, works from the website have been featured in publications around the world, as well as television programs like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. However, not everyone welcomed Saunders’ and Gilk’s vision with open arms.
Surprisingly, Saunders tells me that since the calendar hit the market they have only received one negative criticism, but mainstream retailers have been apprehensive about carrying merchandise from the company. In 2008, Saunders was able to get in touch with executives from the retail chain Hot Topic. “They purchased 3000 calendars with the intention of stocking 300 plus major mall stores. On the day they hit the stores, I took a screenshot with my iPhone and couldn’t wait to see what happened. That same day, I got a call from the execs saying they had gotten cold feet, product too controversial. They pulled it off the shelves.”
Hot Topic wasn’t the only company that decided to pull the plug on Serial Killer Calendar. Saunders tells me that when Ebay made the decision to crack down on murderabilia being sold through their site, their products were among those to get the ax. They have since been able to sell their products through an Etsy store instead.
The success of the calendar, but the apprehension of selling such a product from mainstream retailers is indicative of the love/hate relationship we have with serial killers. We want to view art featuring serial killers. We want to be face-to-face with something we fear the most, but we can’t view it in a store or have it fully on display without the fear of strange looks or the public outcry from capitalizing on our natural curiosity of the subject.
Saunders points out that through their products they are offering a safe way to view the subject matter. There are no crime scenes depicted in their work, only artistic renderings of famous killers. He draws comparisons to shows like Law and Order or Criminal Minds; no one was hurt in the making of these pieces, yet the subject matter evokes a reaction from us like few other works can. Speaking in terms of serial killers in general, “They are like a Pandora’s box of human existence. I don’t think you ever really understand one, but you can’t help but try to solve one.. like a Rubik’s Cube. How in God’s name do all these pieces fit together to make a human being? Solve for it, kill it, hate it, idolize it, but if it is near you.. you have to feel something about it… No?”
With true crime becoming more mainstream by the day, it would seem that we are beginning to reconcile with our dark curiosities, but there are still certain facets of this interest that are widely considered taboo. While it may be perfectly acceptable to have an entire bookshelf full of true crime books and documentaries, having a framed poster of a Richard Ramirez displayed on a wall may still be seen as poor taste.
Regardless of this social taboo, as a species we will continue to seek out a safe means of confronting our fears, and art will remain the safest way to titillate our imaginations and explore the most disturbing facets of the world around us. Though Saunders and Gilk have since abandoned the calender to focus more of their energy on their Serial Killer Magazine and trading cards, it would seem that the pair have pioneered an industry that shows little signs of slowing down anytime within the near future.