The Meaning Behind The 'True Detective' Paintings

HBO anthology series True Detective lives, eats, and breathes symbolism. It exists not just to entertain while you're watching it, but to provide enough material to fuel heated Reddit debates and "what does it mean??" Google searches until the next episode rolls around. The second season premiere didn't disappoint when it came to lobbing fans those internet research topics. But what intrigued me more than any other deliberately dense True Detective set dressing was the scene over at disappeared City Manager Ben Caspere's ransacked apartment. Is Caspere's art collection by real artists? If so, does their work shed any light on the True Detective Season 2 murder case?

When Colin Farrell's character Ray Velcoro and his partner Teague Dixon check out the scene of the alleged crime, they find a treasure trove of suggestive, eclectic, and in some cases downright explicit art. Their victim was either an art lover with very specific tastes or a creep with a taste for surrounding himself with naked women who seem to be in pain. Art and pornography don't need to be confused here, and I would never dream of assigning a creepy or misogynistic motive to the real artists. But the fact that this man collected all of these specific pieces — that he lived, ate, slept, and worked with them — says something about Caspere. It says I wouldn't have wanted him next to me on a late night train. Here's what we can learn from his collection.

The Women Wrapped In Red

There are two pieces by British artist Melissa Mailer-Yates right inside Casper's front door. The first, with a woman wrapped haphazardly in a red garment and lying on a blue bed is titled Eurydice. The other, another woman lying nearly upside down, wrapped in the same type of red fabric but with her breasts exposed, is titled Hera. Both pieces are named after characters in Greek mythology.

When Eurydice died, her lover Orpheus followed her into the Underworld. But he ruined everything when he disobeyed Hades's command not to look back at her as they made their way back into the land of the living. He lost her again, this time forever. Hera, meanwhile, is the wife (and sister) of Zeus. Their relationship was always...challenged. Hera often punished her husband and his lovers for his constant infidelity. We're barely into this season's case, but there are a handful of themes to choose from here. I'm going with the fragile nature of mortality and the sense that we are all the gods' (or the powerful people's) playthings.

The Naked Lady In Milk

Both detectives do a bit of a double take when they see American multimedia artist Peter Sarkisian's White Water. Paddle 8, the auction site that sold the piece, lists its elements as "Metal bowl, high density plaster, tinted polymer resin, video projection, and audio." Sarkisian makes an interesting statement in the comment section of the work's Vimeo upload:

This work is an early attempt to bridge video and sculpture. It's actually very serene and gentle, but True Detective places it in a rather carnal environment, which has caused some viewers to misinterpret it as creepy.

He also mentions that the specific piece was referenced in the episode script, and that he insisted on receiving screen credit (as shown above) for his work. Score for the visual artists!

The Party Painting

The large canvas that lords over Casper's living room is by Terry Rodgers, whose work looks like he's been to better parties than you ever will in your entire life. On his website, he gives some insight into his artistic motivations, which could maybe double as a True Detective synopsis in a pinch:

There is a great push and pull, the lure and the repulsion, the fiction and the real, the known and the unknown. And we live in this swirl of delicate gestures, driving desires, fantasy, economic complexity and interdependence, hierarchical separations, isolation and hope.

You said it, buddy. Isolation and hope may be our watchwords for this season.

I can't wait to see if this art comes to mean more to the case as the season continues. Though, even if it doesn't, it still provided one extra layer of True Detective to unpack. And that's good enough for me.

Image: Lacey Terrell/HBO