The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell

Of all the originals created for Shag’s The Flesh is Willing exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum, his interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights  (c. 1503-1504), the center piece of the exhibit, was the most striking and one of Shag’s most detailed works to date. The overall work was a giant triptych measuring five by 18 feet wide, which was broken down into three equal sized panels of Hell, Earth and Paradise. Ironically, of all three panels, the world portrayed as the liveliest was that of Hell.

I was initially disappointed to find that many images in exact form had come from previous Shag paintings. There’s the microphone wielding performer from Come Sin with Me now taking the spot light in Hell. Nearby is a string trio of demons taking center stage, also found in The Apocalypse has been Postponed. There are three playful pool-party girls from Maiden Voyage now floating through Hell on a bubbling river. Shag has also pulled from past works to create Hell’s landscape, including Mount Olympus from Olympus is Poisoned from Boredom. And then there’s the ever watchful, openly observant towering eye from Violet Girl, Indio Boy. After studying Shag’s Hell a bit more attentively, I became interestingly a bit more openly observant myself, and my reaction of disappointment to these familiarities gradually shifted to one of appreciation for the entire work. And upon further study, I gained a deeper understanding of the piece. The titles alone of the previous works lend obvious clues in this depiction of Hell. The performer under the spot light is indeed inviting those to “Come Sin with Me.” The Apocalypse has indeed been postponed – there isn’t much pain or suffering to be had… yet. And as often found in paintings by Shag, irony thrives. In the Heaven portion of the triptych, Eve is yawning from boredom. And it would seem relocating Mount Olympus to its new real estate in Hell has provided an antidote to the problems Olympus had been facing.

Shag’s interpretation of Hell is vastly different than the Bosch’s original work, and actually seems inviting in a 1950’s cocktail party sort of way. In the original painting, death is portrayed everywhere. When examined closely, the drowning naked bodies in one of Hell’s lakes becomes apparent. In sharp contrast, Shag portrays female nudes enjoying themselves, lounging about as if at a hip Palm Springs resort pool party on a very hot day. In Bosch’s work, music is a prevalent aspect of Hell. There are numerous bodies entrapped in a wide variety of musical instruments. Shag’s depiction, though, is much more freeing. One might think a modern day interpretation of music in Hell to include a chaotic scene of heavy metal indulgence. Not so in Shag’s version. Just three elegant devils, playing away on violins and a cello, the way you might find a trio entertaining guests in the lobby of a Four Seasons Hotel. There’s also a 1960’s era turntable providing music for a mid-century pastime – lounging about a fire pit socializing, drinking and smoking. Of course, Shag’s interpretation of Hell might not be complete without the return of his devilish cherubs, serenading from above for eternity.

There’s quite a bit of additional symbolism in Bosch’s work, and Shag has added his own take. Bosch has symbolized the sin of gambling throughout his painting of Hell. Notice the cards in the lower left corner, the die balancing on the woman’s head in the lower middle of the painting, which is just to the right of a demon holding up a backgammon board. Oddly enough, Shag has excluded all elements of gambling in his piece, with one exception: The executioner to Satan’s right from atop the skull is actually from Shag’s casino-themed work Last Table in Vegas.

If Hell is more like Shag’s interpretation, maybe the unforgiven sinners have nothing to worry about. In fact, maybe God is looking out for those in Hell too. Take a look at what’s propped up in the background over Satan. Looks like He’s got them covered.

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