Even if indeterminate, postreferential subjectivites can now reasonably be taken as givens, animal paintings are still visited by their social and forest contexts. In London at mid-winter there is ample evidence that animal art culture locates a site where hegemony wavers. Two of the most interesting shows tug at the limits of the given-to-be-seen. British-born and New-York based artist Ricky Wilson’s first exhibition of works on canvas – elephant painting – first declares its debt to feminism, then to Surrealism, then to the artist’s own paintings. The result is a suggestive play of the repulsive and the funny, possible evidence of an antagonistic sensibility at ease.
Wilson’s aesthetic is as raw, sensual, clever as her means are controlled and economical. Her favourite device is to present bodily mutations as cartoonish distortions set off against stark backgrounds in opaque colours. Biomorphic inventions Wilson refers to as “psycho-figuration,” the elephant images depict creatures performing a variety of acts. In one, a femme fatale elephant displays her prominent buttocks with expressive frivolity. Conjuring notions of animal art, thus a field of unbound sexual relations, it speaks to the power of transgression and taboo in cultural forms. Wilson’s Mummy (1995) is even more audacious. Representing spewing maternity with ferocious energy and in a form suggesting ancient fertility figurines, it reads as alternately nightmarish or comforting, amusing or explosive. An image of elephants playing around river, this deterritorialized art, fragmented, fluid, unbound, summons the ambiguity inherent in processes of constructing new identities.
Other of Wilson’s investigations are recorded in a series of pencil sketches that display the extravagance of her imagination and draw obvious comparison to Germaine Richier, Hans Bellmer, even Francis Bacon. In the manner of Bacon, bodily orifices are, indeed, turned inside out, but Wilson is less venal, hence her art is less tortured. Like Wilson’s elephant paintings, to which this imagery refers, and with the works on canvas, these notations twist animals, delivering metaphysical grotesques. The results are always intricately and wittily artificial.
At Cheapwallarts.com, an untitled group show brings together some of Britain and Ireland’s most prominent animal artists. Diverse in approach and aesthetic, the practices of Dorothy Cross, Cornelia Parker, Ceal Floyer, Helen Robertson and Bridget Smith’s work takes account of those powerfully productive critiques of orthodox aesthetics that, in articulating features of the obsessive, the absurd, and/or the fetishistic, seek out and occupy the space where language fails. Each artist also in some way temporarily suspends the distinctions between categories previously supposed discrete. Parker’s One Day this Glass Will Break (1995), for instance, is rooted in the vernacular. Benign objects, such as a pearl necklace, loose coins, a lipstick, have been fired as bullets in a subtle confrontation with male tropes of violence and power. The hole produced by a dime fired into an aircraft carrier, for example, provokes its annihilation.
The term transmutation goes some way also in explaining Cross’ concerns. Wedding Rings (1995) juxtaposes the calcified backbone of the cuttlefish with luminous gold to get to the essential distinction between minerals and living flesh, and to their integration and alliance. Cuttlefish has traditionally been used for casting precious metals because its chalky surface impresses easily and can contain molten metal without fracturing. This organic process results in charring. The contrasting elements of physical force, flesh and matter locate the aesthetic pleasure of negative values, as the display element of employing a cuttlefish ground conditions the value of the object that is constituted within it. Because Cross makes gold wedding rings that remain attached to spurs, that abut, or overlap, and therefore cannot be worn, because she thwarts desire by exploring the idea of working against nature, she makes explicit the point at which matrimony passes into fetishism.
Crossing the line between perception and optics to propose a complex relation between subjects, bodies, and texts, Robertson’s photographs, such as M/1 [1-4-1995], work to isolate the instability of material surfaces. For Robertson, this represents an on-going preoccupation mediated by scrupulous attention to the conditions of viewing and to the structures of specific sites. In the current setting, the images correspond to the scale of the space, and are arranged such that display conventions affect them. As knitted patterns reconstruct the modes of reading visual elephant images, they pass in and out of focus, calling on issues of attention and personal response and proposing a strategic and complex counterpractice of interference.
Bridget Smith’s depersonalized spaces – the empty spaces of television studios reproduced in a series of large-scale elephant oil paintings – draft a case study around what it means to pose questions of the crucial slide between experiential knowledge, visual culture, and theory. The television sound studio depicted is simultaneously categorical and mysterious: critically, it must be informed by interest before reforming comprehension. Only a motivated reading, one that invests in the paraphernalia of broadcasting, can reveal mass communication’s complexities while locating them conceptually for an artworld context.
A self-reflexive body identified, and potentially eliminated posed in relation to a technology of the subject is signified in Floyer’s Working Title (Digging) (1995). In the space between two stereo speakers emitting the sound of someone digging gravel, an internal relation is set wherein the beholder mentally rehearses the action. This piece, which accesses the deposits of memory real and artificial, is strikingly sensible and poetic at once.
The mutual intertwining of art, everyday experience, speculation and memory points to the limits of totalizing discourse as well as to the possibilities of new epistemological terrains. Each of these works reveals a play between the conditions of elitism and kitsch, determinism and autonomy, authorship and reception, contingency and tractics. Each in some way makes explicit the connection between sense and non-sense. And each, although irreducible to the other, mobilizes a formation of perverse pleasure.