Indepth Arts News:
"Animal Instincts: Allegory and Anthropomorphism"
2007-09-22 until 2007-11-11
ATHICA, Athens Institute for Contemporary Art
Athens, GA, USA United States of America
Since the dawn of time, animals have inspired our artistic impulses. From prehistoric cave paintings to the half-beast gods and monsters of the ancient world, from medieval hunting scenes to the 19th century animalier tradition, and from the fables of Aesop to the corporate mascots and blockbuster animated features of contemporary popular culture, it is clear that the human-animal connection is one of the most primordial and persistent relationships in all of civilization. We lay our babies down to sleep with stuffed bears and tales of frog princes, hapless pigs, and the Big Bad Wolf. And it's no surprise that when a child first takes crayon to paper, animals are among their earliest discernible images. Included in the exhibition is Ellen Jantzen who has been a Premiere Portfolio Artist at absolutearts.com since 2003.
Kenny Aguar (Athens, GA), Matt Blanks (Athens, GA), Jill Carnes (Athens, GA); Andrew Cayce (Athens, GA); Louise Zjawin Francke (Efland, NC); Joe Havasy (Athens, GA); Ellen Jantzen (Valencia, CA); Heidi Jensen (Jacksonville Beach, FL); Billie Grace Lynn (Miami, FL); Jessica May (St. Louis, MO); Jacqueline Meeks (Nashville, TN); Rosemary Mendicino (Athens, GA); Diane Meyer (California); Blake Sanders (New Orleans, LA); Dorothy Schultz (Trumbull, CT); Dan Smith (Athens, GA); Beth Thompson (Athens, GA); Margi Weir (Placitas, NM); Jeffrey Whittle (Athens, GA)
Yet what is it about these furry, feathered, scaly, and slimy creatures that so captivates us—these supposedly senseless beings upon whose flesh we feast, whose labors we relied upon to build our civilizations and conquer uncharted lands, whose fangs and claws we fear, whose habitats we plunder and pave over, and whose antics provide us with endless entertainment?
From the wacky cartoony wonderlands of local Athenians such as Jill Carnes, Joe Havasy, Andrew Cayce, and Dan Smith to the creepy psycho-sexual situations portrayed by the likes of Heidi Jensen and Kenny Aguar, to the moral complexities of animal rights issues present in works by Jessica May, Louise Zjawin Francke, and Ellen Jantzen, "Animal Instincts: Allegory & Anthropomorphism" invites viewers to consider human-animal parallels from a fresh contemporary perspective.
WAR & ANIMAL ALLEGORY
The gallery is dominated by nationally renowned Miami artist Billie Grace Lynn's 30-foot inflatable, Dead Mouse. This absurdly oversized gory reinterpretation of an American icon offers a poignant statement on emptiness and innocence lost in an era of unrestrained capitalist imperialism and war. Yet despite the morbid overtones and pooling blood—which incidentally forms the shape of the continental U.S.— the work is overwhelmingly comical, an effect that enhances the allusion to desensitivity to violence that prevails in our culture. ATHICA is pleased to be exhibiting this ambitious work (see image this page), which Lynn submitted to our Annual Review Committee in 2006. (Her work was also included in ATHICA's January 2007 exhibit, "Transience: The Paradox of Being.")
Not surprisingly, war is an issue for other artists in our show. New Mexico artist Margi Weir weighs in with Tapestry of Flight. This 9-foot wide by 13-foot high vinyl decal makes allusions to the destructive proclivities of man-made contraptions. (Weir's similarly war-themed Screaming Wheel was a big hit at ATHICA in the fall 2006, "America on the Brink" exhibit). Although mankind's modern technology so often poses a threat to the survival of many species, animal abilities certainly serve as inspiration for some of our most miraculous machines. Tapestry of Flight explores our triumph over air and space with graphic patterns of birds, bees, airplanes, astronauts, and rockets woven together into something of a magic carpet chronicling the human desire to break free from gravity's bonds only to end up dropping bombs.
Connecticut's Dorothy Schultz also explores machines of war in Technological Evolution. Schultz's impressive body of performance, installation, and video work frequently addresses issues of authority and societal status quo from an absurdist perspective, and her video contribution to "Animal Instincts" is no exception. Technological Evolution stars a pack of hermit crabs outfitted in "shells" resembling tanks. The effect is both monstrous and comical as war games are played out amongst these clumsy and benign little creatures.
DYSTOPIC VS. UTOPIC VISIONS
Longtime Athenian Andrew Cayce's lurid, cartoonish, and surreal paintings also toy with the absurdity of authority, control issues, and vulnerability. In Bunch o' Bears, an army of fuzzy teddies marches along in an utterly unnatural Orwellian wasteland. Sluggy features a crowned and vested slug reigning over a sextet of snails, his shell-less status somehow elevating him to a position of authority. Princess and Frog offers a similar scene, this time between familiar fairy tale characters. Only in Cayce's interpretation, the conspicuously nude girl, seemingly out for a moonlit skinny dip, plays the dual role of princess and sorceress, wielding power as she waves her magic wand over the patient frog.
In contrast to the smooth surrealism of Cayce's work, Jill Carnes noodley-limbed critters exist in a quivering childlike world of rainbow-hued psychedelic pattern. Also a longtime figure on the Athens art scene, Carnes contributes three drawings to "Animal Instincts." Diplomatic Reasons plays out a benign scene in which a rabbit-eared alien is welcomed to Earth by a blue and purple polka-dotted elephant—an incident likely to turn ugly if the same visitor were to stumble upon human civilization. In What Shall I Wear? and Deadline, a goofy giraffe and a smiling kitty goodnaturedly toil away at the mundane tasks of everyday human existence.
ANTHROPOMORPHISM, EMOTION & PSYCHO-SEXUAL PROJECTIONS
Athenian, Matt Blanks employs a Japanime cartoon style in a vast body of work dominated by animalesque creatures. Blanks, who dabbles in textiles and ceramics as well, offers two touching paintings featuring fantastical beasts wallowing in the throes of human emotion. His Teodor, Winged Rabbit (Guardian the First) (reproduced on this page), is a melancholy monster displaying ragged patchwork wings; it comes across as more frightened than fearsome. Cockatrice and the Bear King of Sadness portrays another very blue critter whose candyland kingdom appears to have been overrun by a vicious though jovial mythical beast.
Heidi Jensen of Jacksonville Beach, Florida illustrates the not-so-uplifting side of human nature. Jensen's drawings, Leak and Blush, portray gruesome rabbit people with pendulous bellies who lose control of bodily functions. In scenes offering a Jerry Springer spin on a Watership Down world, Jensen's work addresses themes of domestic violence and societal roles thrown into chaos. In compositions of delicate candy colors, bunnies, normally considered among the cuddliest of critters, are transfigured into vile and loathsome humanoids capable of inflicting deep psychological wounds.
Native Athenian Kenny Aguar also employs animal imagery to illustrate the baser side of human nature. Aguar's alter ego, the monkey-suited 8-Track Gorilla, gained renown on the Athens music scene nearly a decade ago for his karaoke-style raucous reinterpretations of some of the bawdier hits from the late '70s and early '80s. An accomplished collage artist who draws inspiration from science fiction, vintage comics, B-movies, rock n' roll, and porn, Aguar's triptych, Forgive Us Our Debts, Impossible?, and Side-Show plays out a nightmarish narrative of apocalyptic lust and betrayal in an animal-filled Garden of Eden gone bad. (Tracking the Gorilla, a new documentary by local filmmaker Diane Campese about Aguar's 8-Track Gorilla will be screened as part of this exhibit's affiliated events.)
Athenian, Joe Havasy, also approaches the idea of animal-human lust, albeit from a much more innocent and comical perspective. A regular contributor to Athens' Flagpole magazine's comics page, Havasy's paintings, Trust and Buzz Off, are two in a series of paintings and comics which depict an ongoing theme of sexy/cute young women as the object of silly and seemingly harmless animal affections.
HUMAN IDENTITY THROUGH ANIMAL CHARACTER
Athenian Dan Smith utilizes a similar cartoon style and comical bent in alluding to issues of identity. An elementary-school art teacher by trade, Smith encourages the illustration of pure imagination. His Iconoclastamus is a portrait-like portrayal of a rather dignified hippo with an obvious admiration of Abraham Lincoln, while I am not a unicorn, I am not a narwhal, I am not a rhinoceros, for I am not a hero is a sweet, rose-colored monster who wrestles with the age-old question "Who am I?" And New Haircut #3 is a comical illustration of a sentiment shared by anyone who has ever walked out of a salon sporting a startling new 'do.
Hailing from Santa Monica, California, Diane Meyer's LVP1613, MLR1943, and AMW1048 are three selections from a larger photo portrait series of unmasked young men in mascot costumes. The images are intended to reference military portraiture and explore notions of innocence and vulnerability among young soldiers sent off to dangerous faraway lands, but anyone familiar with "Furries" may be reminded of the thriving underground culture of animal-suit enthusiasts who regularly gather in chat rooms and conventions to celebrate their inner animals.
An accomplished multi-media artist, Nashville's Jacqueline Meeks offers a selection from a larger series of drawings. Horse Girl 1 & 3 and Shark Boy 1 & 2, stylistically recall the notebook doodles of distracted adolescents (think of the "Liger" scene in the indie hit film, Napoleon Dynamite). Yet the grotesque morphing of human and animal forms and the graphic illustration of internal organs allude to darker themes of mutation, dissection, and psychological unrest.
Ellen Jantzen of Valencia, California also addresses mutation in her digital images, A Blind Trust, Carpio kallos, and Eye Witness. These sleek, symmetrical, mandala-like forms are made up of bits and pieces of flora and fauna from the natural world, yet they have become new and utterly unfamiliar, unnatural creations. Jantzen explores the idea of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), splicing and reforming images in much the same way scientists alter the DNA of experimental life forms. (Jantzen's work also appeared in spring 2007's Ruburbs exhibit.)
New Orleans artist Blake Sanders employs animals to relate poignant socio-political truths. Created in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, New Neighbor shows a beaver setting up house in a badly damaged Crescent City neighborhood, alluding to the destructive and constructive forces of humanity that preyed upon that city after the disaster. A newer work, Dressed to Impress turns to prehistoric pterodactyls to illustrate the primordial male instinct which is shared by nearly all species who go to great lengths to attract a mate.
Louise Zjawin Francke of Elfland, North Carolina re-imagines the iconic works of the Great Masters with animal stand-ins to convey the preciousness of the Earth's threatened species. Rhino Lady as Vermeer's Girl with a Flute, New Kind of Marriage in Arnolfini's Wedding Chamber, and Puma as Ingres' The Princess Broglie all feature endangered animals in familiar costumes, poses, and scenes, offering an irreverent nod to art history and society's quest to preserve cultural icons while addressing serious issues of species preservation. (See Puma image this page.)
St. Louis artist Jessica May also alludes to the preciousness of animal life. May made "Odd News" headlines all over the internet earlier this year when she dressed up roadkill in human clothing, leaving it on-site to startle motorists throughout the southern Illinois area where she lived. (See blogs.usatoday.com /ondeadline/ 2007/05/woman_decorates.html for a news blurb on this project). Her photos, Opossum 1, Opossum 3.2, Raccoon 1, Raccoon 2, Raccoon 3, and Raccoon 3.2. provide darkly comical yet creepy evidence of this project and lead us to rethink the role of the mowed-down creatures strewn along our roadsides and our own callous lack of reaction as we speed by. (See Racoon image, next page.)
THE MYSTIC ANIMAL
Athenian Rosemary Mendicino's mechanized constructions, Butterflygirl and Minotaurman, incorporate original expressionistic ceramic forms as well as found objects—broken and discarded doll parts, rusty bits of metal machinery, yellowing scraps of printed paper. Profoundly influenced by the work of early 20th century American psychic/philosopher Edgar Cayce, Mendicino's creatures recall a prehistoric era in which evolved spiritual beings occupied animal forms. (Incidentally, fellow "Animal Instincts" artist Andy Cayce is a distant cousin of Edgar Cayce and admits to have found some inspiration in the ideas of his famous ancestor.) Calling to mind statues of ancient gods and holy saints, Mendicino's works meld elements from the natural world with the detritus of modern human existence, creating contemporary icons worthy of any neo-pagan altar.
Athenian Beth Thompson's 8 of Wands, 7 of Swords, and Ace of Cups are three cards in an ongoing series depicting the full tarot deck. These digitally manipulated photographic collages are the artist's personal reinterpretations of the traditional symbols of each particular card, often including animals as the embodiment of particular spiritual elements. The cards are arranged in a past/present/future reading of the artist's own life—her hand-written interpretation is displayed for the audience.
Athenian Jeffery Whittle also turns to animals as the incarnation of abstract spiritual ideals. Deeply imbued with a Zen-like calm, Whittle's work incorporates bits of aeronautical and oceanographic maps to reference concepts of journeying and the human desire to know where we're going. Birdland (see detail image next page) depicts tortoises and birds co-mingling as earth meets sky and flights of fancy seek a slow and steady pace, while his underwater cowboy scene, Yin-Yang Rounders, substitutes a pair of wizened catfish for bucking broncos in an illustration of the wild ride that is this life.
Highly varied in both style and thematic undertones, "Animal Instincts: Allegory & Anthropomorphism" explores individual and societal tendencies to imbue other species with purely human physical and psychological characteristics. The exhibit frequently reveals more about human nature and philosophical ideals than it does the increasingly precarious state of animal existence.
We hope that this exhibit will inspire viewers to explore their own inner animal metaphors and perhaps gain an increased appreciation for the physical existence of as well as the allegorical meanings inspired by the creatures with whom we share this Earth.
—Melissa Link, Curator
with editorial assistance by Lizzie Zucker Saltz, Director and Mark Watkins, Assistant Curator
Ellen Jantzen's work can be viewed here in her Premiere Portfolio at absolutearts.com.