Throughout history, the human skeleton has been a symbol of broad-ranging themes such as love, heritage, piety, privilege, war, and of course, mortality. But Philadelphia-based artist John Karel has found a new way to use skeletons: by creating amusing GIFs that celebrate both the absurd and mundane.
Human bones in art is nothing new. As early as 7000 BCE, people in different parts of the word decorated skulls of their loved ones, continuing the practice of bejeweling skeletons off and on—both in the both religious and secular spaces—before contemporary English artist Damien Hirst culminated the practice in 2007 with his famous platinum and diamond-studded skull, For the Love of God.
Yet while skeletons provided the raw material for artists long before the Renaissance, the representation of skeletons in art didn't really take off until scientists began studying human anatomy between the 1500s and 1700s. Artists then illustrated human skulls and bones for early medical textbooks, and over the course of a few centuries, skeletons became a veritable creative motif.
In Mexico, Spanish conquistadors tried to suppress the longstanding Aztec tradition of drawing and painting skeletons, but during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, political cartoonist, engraver, and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada reclaimed the Mexican creative heritage of depicting human bones to appeal to the masses. That's because many people couldn't read newspapers, but could nonetheless understand the nature of Posada's social satire as illustrated through his cartoons.
It's hard to say where the practice of depicting human skeletons stands today, as Posada pretty much brought it full circle. But if John Karel's GIF art is any indication, skeletons have now become avatars for living human beings in ordinary situations. By placing them in everyday scenarios, Karel highlights the ridiculousness of common settings, which wouldn't be readily apparent if the skeletons were swapped out for living people.
Karel grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and studied painting at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. He uses Autodesk Maya to create his animations, which were originally made as content for his Tumblr and Instagram. But since he began posting his art, his mostly untitled GIFs have become so popular that Karel recently left a job at the conservation department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in order to devote himself full time to making GIFs and working as a freelance animator.
"Art is an effective form of communication which can reach a broad swath of the population," Karel tells The Creators Project. The artist acknowledges the advent of the web as a new medium through which art such as Posada's socially-conscious works can take new forms: "The most obvious sea change in recent years for just about everything is the internet and social media, so I assume that it too has affected art and social commentary more than anything else."
Karel doesn't really believe that there's any kind of social commentary that is specific to his art. "I try to keep my work open-ended, but the subjects of technology, consumer products, and death are evident," he says. "I tend to do the same basic thing over and over again."
He believes it's not too important that audiences stay up to date on what's socially conscious art, and what isn't. "The future of art as social commentary is online, as long as the internet is a free and open space," Karel explains. "I don't think it's necessarily important for anyone to stay informed about the practice of art as social commentary. I think that it will happen naturally, in one form or another."