Scott Covert: Why an artist made it his mission to track down dead celebrities

by The Insights

The pilgrimage often involves the creation of a personal map. Whether one seeks out sacred wells, cult filming locations, rare birds, or feats of Victorian engineering, it provides a series of common threads that span familiar boundaries and terrain. It feels like everyone in Covert is oriented by graveyards – each one a beacon, its potential depending on who is buried there. It’s easier now in the days of Google Maps and online records, but the graves were hard to locate. Covert tells me how he met someone who became a very dear friend at the Culver City grave, next to Rita Hayworth’s final resting place. Part of the so-called Hollywood Underground, an informal group dedicated to searching the graves of those celebrities whose whereabouts were kept secret, he was an invaluable source of information.

While this may all sound rather macabre, there is a vivid and curious quality to Covert’s work and attitude: a sense of devotion and obsession. He’s been described as Warholian in his approach to pop culture and celebrity, but there’s something immensely sincere about these paintings. Some of them might be mean and some dark (he says the graves of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, convicted of the Clutter family murders and at the center of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, made him stand feel “repelled”), but many are respectful – even loving. Covert says he developed his way of working because he wanted to do abstract paintings. A name is just another kind of brand – a brand in which “every stroke of the brush” lasts a lifetime. It also becomes proof of having been somewhere. The paintings themselves are maps. In the process of being made, they prove that the creator has come all this way, driving for 14 hours or taking a plane, to get to that particular tomb and the particular person it commemorates. It is, as another friend pointed out to him, the opposite of graffiti. He does not leave his mark. Instead, he diligently acquires it, accumulating a series of numbers and letters summarizing a whole story.

The power of the tombstone

In her book These Silent Mansions: A Lifetime in Graveyards, poet Jean Sprackland writes about her own lack of interest in famous gravestones. Instead, she is drawn to “the trivial and forgotten, whose names can no longer be deciphered.” She loves them, she says, because they remind her “of the length of human life – how one may be longer than another but all are over – and how I and everyone around me make part of the inevitable repeating pattern so explicitly demonstrated here.” There is something humbling about being in a graveyard, remembering the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Everything must end, including us. British artist Nathan Coley’s 2010 work, In Memory, featured a series of headstones that had, for various mysterious reasons, been removed from where they were supposed to be. On each, the name was chiselled: a white square in its place, leaving behind only messages of rest and loving remembrance. In their anonymity, they became something that could belong to anyone’s dear father or beloved wife. Detached from their specific commemorative function, they also become again, according to the accompanying notes of the work, objects: shapes cut and carved in stone or granite, rather than reminders of someone specific, a whole life compressed between two dates.

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