The story of Cells
Expressing emotion though art is working directly with your inner feelings. Cells is a series of paintings by raw artist Dimitri Zoellin. The work pulses with feeling, every piece a direct portrait of an emotional state. The striking color and chaotic line work is firmly within Zoellin’s outsider style, but here it is carried to its absolute ends.
The unique depiction of perspective and human psychology in Cells begins with the use of the canvas or paper itself. Primarily working with acrylic and posca pens, along with other materials, the works almost glow with the strong color choices.
Visual language of cells
Each canvas defines the dimensions and limits of each cell. Inside, we see the chaos and order of the beings — more or less angry, more or less sad. Zoellin explores these emotions in their degrees.
While all painting strives to convey some emotional content, in Cells, Zoellin has created a visual language that speaks explicitly about emotional states. Through this visual language, he tells a story, with the paintings building one on top of each other, cooperating with one another to make a whole, like the cells of a body.
Zoellin has captured emotion in as pure a way as possible — through an abstracted face. For many of the pieces, the profile of a creature with mouth agape creates a general pattern that he uses to explore far beyond the limits of more representational methods.
The paintings each follow their own thread, but always return to this pattern as a center for the next piece in the series.
The Walls of a Feeling
The pieces are both functioning like biological cells in a body and cells in a prison block. They create energy and strive to multiply, just as they confine and limit the subject inside. The paintings can be seen in both ways, productive units and walls that hem in and constrain the subject.
Strong emotions create heat and energy. They push out into the universe to recreate themselves. But the stronger an emotion, the greater a trap and barrier to other features of experience.
Our current cultural moment is filled with strong emotional reactions. The global pandemic creates anxiety, and that anxiety can cause people to lash out or turn inward and ignore the outside world. This is all exacerbated by the quarantine conditions many of us live under, our homes not unlike cells.
The Messages to the Robin
In Zoellin’s series, the characters inside of the cells are struggling to communicate to the world, to share the feeling that animates them. While they cannot do this alone, they are not alone. There is a helper that isn’t always easy to see at first, as there so often is. This robin carries the messages of those inside the cells to the world at large.
These messages always vary from cell to cell, and while they can span the gamut of pacifism to artistic expression to anarchism — the core message is that of communicating itself. The desire to reach out across the cell walls that divide us and reach communion over our inner state is the essence of the message.
The Bird and the Artist
In a way, the cells speak to the robin who flutters to the artist to repeat what is heard. Zoellin is using a microscope to zoom in and take a look on his own, confirming the reports he receives from the trusted bird.
This relationship between the subject and the artist may seem removed at first, but this is only if we deny the powers of the bird. Like Hermes from classical mythology, the robin is the spirit that can transition between worlds, can shapeshift and cross divides. The robin flutters in the liminal space that exists between other cells and our own, that seemingly unbridgeable chasm between two people locked in their own container of feeling.
Message and ego
The robin is the messenger but also a message — that there are powers in this world that can transport us beyond the boundaries of our cells, that we can share our experiences and commune without the impediments of the ego.
The artist, knowing this because he is the one who listens to the robin, must visualize these messages. Through art, he renders the Robin’s words through these emotional paintings.
Peering into the Cell
And by seeing into these cells, as if through a microscope, we are transported beyond those borders. We fly, as if we are the robin, into the chambers of another’s heart, bearing witness to the same rage, tenderness, love, and frustration that we know to be the contents of our own souls.
Expressing emotion through Art
Zoellin takes care to display the contents of the cells in a universal, primal language of line, color, and scribbled words that speak less in semantic qualities that in their jumbled rush to be read, their hunger to communicate what feels ineffable.
These signs allow us not only to see with our eyes but to experience directly the tumult and heat inside, as if we were caught in the cell, as if they were looking into us.
Escaping the Cell
As long as we have bodies, as long as our brains construct an ego around the differences between “I” and “you” and “this” and “that,” we may never truly walk outside of the cell. But that does not mean that we must be resigned to a life bound by its borders.
Take a flight with art
Through art, we can move into another realm — a visionary space where there are no cells, there are no limits, there are no definitions. This visionary space is available to us if only we can listen to the Robin, watch the way it flutters into any world it chooses. Because if we listen and watch closely enough, one day it might be us who spread our wings and take flight.
Text by Jonathan Clark