The skull is a universal symbol of mortality, appearing in artworks by everyone from Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But in Lee Downey’s “Yorick,” it also represents the human aspiration to comprehend the mysteries of the universe.
The life-sized skull, which will soon hit the auction block at Bonhams Los Angeles, is a sculptural fusion of modern art and natural history. Downey carved it from a hulking, 615-pound meteorite that scientists say was once a planet that orbited between Mars and Jupiter. When it broke apart, the iron mass flew through space for four billion long years before exploding over the Kalahari Desert in Namibia a thousand years ago.
Downey is known for working with unusual materials, from woolly mammoth ivory to bowling balls. The California-born, Bali-based artist purchased the meteorite years ago, convinced it was “the architecturally ‘perfect’ form for the brain vessel,” according to Bonhams.
The rock itself suggests its otherworldly origins. Downey washed the skull in a nitric acid bath to reveal natural gray-and-white lines known as Widmanstätten. The pattern results from a prolonged heating process that can only happen in the vacuum of space, where there are no surrounding molecules to help cool an object down. The acid bath also revealed a very rare orange tridymite crystal on what became the sculpture’s forehead.
This “true time traveler,” as Downey has described him, can’t help but bring to mind Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull titled “For the Love of God” (2007). Hirst’s artwork was a cheeky commentary on money and art. Downey suggests the extraordinary nature of the human mind, as well as its fascination with the universe’s endless mysteries.
“Yorick” by Lee Downey will be auctioned November 24 by Bonhams Los Angeles (7601 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles) in its Lapidary Works of Art, Gemstones, and Minerals sale.