In an era of global warming, bio-terrorism, and pandemics, it's perhaps not surprising that artists who refer to the natural world in their work often do so with a profound sense of unease. A number of exhibitions in recent years have featured images of shocking mutations, twisted inner processes, and nature under siege. The current show at Seattle's SOIL Gallery entitled Crud continues this dialogue, displaying the work of five local artists whose work uses biology as its point of departure. We're joined now by KUOW art critic Gary Faigin with his observations on this highly topical exhibit.
The cooperative Pioneer Square SOIL Gallery has developed a strong track record for mounting rewarding thematic shows organized both by member artists and guest curators - like the current exhibit's guest curator, Ellen Ziegler. Ms. Ziegler, whose own work is a highlight, has chosen a purposely provocative title to set her exhibit apart, but the title doesn't really fit the work. By Crud Ziegler refers to the hidden, unsavory side of the natural realm, the teeming inner world of viscera, excretions, and disease, bad things happening to good organisms.
But while the work she's chosen is highly suggestive of matters both biological and arcane, it's far too elegant and polite to be lumped together with a noun more suggestive of scabs, snot, dung, and mold. Perhaps it's too much to expect of artwork anyway, which doesn't decay, smell, or bite, all things which might trigger that reptilian brain response which the word "crud" implies. In exhibitions past I've seen paintings made of thousands of dead insects, objects floating in urine, and picture-perfect plastic vomit; given the choice of discrete or disgusting, I'll take Ziegler's "crud" any day.
Besides, repulsion and fear aren't everything - how about surprise and wonder, not to mention intrigue and amusement, the sort of responses triggered by at least several of the current works? Art isn't nature, after all, but merely a parallel world made up of very human artifacts, and when it's a world as dense and original as this, we pay attention. Take Timeya Tihanyi's (TIM-ee-ya Tee-HAN-yi) "One Head," my favorite work in the show. Suggestive of both folk-art paper cutting and radiology, the piece consists of 55 small plastic sleeves containing veins cut out of a single head of cabbage, leaf by leaf, with the resulting dendritic patterns pinned to the wall in tightly-spaced rows. I'm always impressed with the results of skillful obsession, and the idea of the former physician Tihanyi dissecting out the tiny circulatory system of a supermarket vegetable for the sake of art (the smallest vein networks are the size of lentils) is satisfyingly over-the-top.
The surprise here is the vague similarity of the fan-shaped sliced "blood" vessels - arranged in order of descending size - to images of the human brain or lungs, but does it inspire fellow-feeling, man to vegetable, as: We're All In This Together? Or are the overtones that of a life-support system reduced to a sort of chart, and thereby made useless and sterile? As in many of the works in the show, the artist's take on the natural world is ambiguous; here it seems to be a sort of morbid fascination, along with an homage to organic architecture. This is a take on nature oddly akin to that of Seattle's recent Bodyworks exhibit, which also featured dissected-out venous networks (strictly human), but with a far more glamorized and hyperbolic presentation.
Also strong are the several sculptural installations by Nola Avienne, whose chosen medium of iron fillings and magnets would not on the face of it seem like a good match for a show devoted to images inspired by the living world. But Avienne has a keen sense for the dramatic possibilities of her decidedly grey, industrial materials. In her sculpture small conversation, two puppy-sized, curved horns sit on adjacent pedestals, their pointed ends nearly touching, their wooden surfaces hidden by a thick wool-like coat of whorls of magnetized iron dust. The swirls also look uncannily like a closely-packed colony of sea anemones, tentacles out. But real anemones aren't magnetized; here the two furred creatures are making electrical contact, with several almost weightless metal strands bridging the air gap between their two arching bodies.
Oops. Does this all sound vaguely pornographic? It's more like a kiss than an actual sex act, but there's a whole lot of something going on here, a highly original take on the idea of "animal magnetism".
Even more peculiar, but lots of fun, are Avienne's two motorized sculptures, one of which consists of bug-sized magnetic lumps chasing each other around an iron dust-covered pedestal top, the other a sort of lumpy ping-pong ball staggering around a stationary record turntable. The wobbling ping pong ball speaks to the fine line that all these artists follow between making literal reference to the animal universe or simply creating nature-inspired work. I liked this piece much better until I noticed that the ball was painted to look like an eye, the only time Avienne gets so specific, and to my mind a diminishment of the mystery, and the poetry. If her animated eye - it in fact reminded me of the little moving creatures in a tide pool - is meant to make a statement about perception and entrapment, it doesn't work nearly as well as if it's left simply as a stand-in for all the enigmatic natural mechanisms pulsing like hidden clockworks all around (and inside) us.
I felt the same way when I noticed a set of eyes in curator Ellen Ziegler's otherwise terrific burnt paper drawings of invented microscopic critters. Ziegler has evolved a highly effective graphic language made up of tiny scorch holes created by dabbing an electrode on heavy rag paper. She uses the holes as a sort of stippling, the sepia-toned spots serving as air bubbles, exoskeletons, and all-purpose protoplasm for her highly complex bugs. One section of the gallery is covered with an entire squadron of these paper monsters, each cut out and set just above the wall surface with pins. The tension here comes from both the science fiction presence of the real/not real creatures, and the complex, almost sculptural texture of their eroded depictions, literally shocked into existence - both there (bumpy burn marks) and not there (holes) at once. Literal eyes strike me as besides the point.
I'm also on board with Susan Zoccola's sculptural takes on magnified nerves, polyps, and hair follicles, but I'm left cold by Clair Putney's too-spare drawings inspired by hair strands and concrete cracks.
Artists have been spinning their own versions of nature since at least the time of Hieronymous Bosch, whose proto-surrealist fantasy plants and animals were said to be inspired by the excitement of European discoveries in the New World. The artists in Crud are similarly channeling reports from the latest front (the world of microbiology) into their own menagerie of imaginary life, an exhibit whose overall mood - in spite of the title - is decidedly upbeat.