Jayson Niles is a Material Boy. His recent, and first ever, solo exhibition Anamalis, at the Swan Coach House Gallery through February 21, showcases an experienced and meticulous technical expertise using a wealth of materials such as sleek wood, industrial metal, colorful resin and found objects in sculptural works mainly comprising animal forms. But these are no ordinary carved and wrought animals; they are a troupe of oddities in beast form that also incorporate taxidermy — full and partial animals and skinned hides. Fine technical craft meets nature and man-made materials to create a surreal and mythological new reality. It is a disturbing, macabre and sometimes humorous exhibition.
Niles is passionate about materials, and the expert way he uses them is the most impressive aspect of these works. The wood is finely carved and keenly polished, the metal beautifully wrought, the resin expertly colored and cast. This is the result of an early background working as a fine furniture maker and fabricator, and his recent work with Atlanta metalsmith Andrew Crawford. It is his work at the Crawford studio that brought him to the attention of curator Marianne Lambert, who has nurtured this, his introduction to the Atlanta art world.
Niles cites his early works such as Link — a mother and child gourd-shaped wood piece tied together with a metal umbilical cord — as “pretty wood.” The elegant Clear Rabbit is reminiscent of Brancusi in its simple form and glowing resin material. In a recent phone interview, Niles stated that he stopped looking at other artists’ works and most art magazines some time ago, preferring instead to head into the studio, sketch whatever was in his own head and “hunker down and make things happen” rather than be influenced by others.
It was at this point that he started working with taxidermy — a practice he shares with such artists as Mark Dion, Charlie Mclenahan and duo Jill O’Brien and Trish Igo. Niles utilizes fur factory cast-offs, pelts and taxidermy purchased at stores and estate sales. He had his barber come to the studio to assist him in learning how to properly trim the fur to achieve a more consistent integration of the grain.
The aptly named Lion Anamalis, a life-size, distinctly anthropomorphic, huggable Sasquatch, has a genuine, taxidermy mountain lion as the core structure. It is hidden under several rug pelts purchased from Ikea and stitched together. Lion’s disco rhinestone face provides a stark and humorous contrast to the strangeness of the huge, carved, rabbitlike ears, whitewashed “snowshoes” and curved metal hook. The work is sweet and likeable, but also discordant by its overuse of too many elements, lines and forms, and materials and techniques.
Rabbits and their locomotion are recurring references. Many of the sculptures appear to be hopping but they are often one-legged or positioned in an oddly unreal and double-jointed stance. Some have exaggerated rabbit ears; other weirdly placed appendages reference butterfly wings or horned daggers.
The unreality takes a different turn in Red Fox Anamalis, which sports a hula hoop and fur dyed a cheerful cherry red. With its exuberant sense of movement, the piece evokes childish joy.
While most people justify slaughtering animals for food, shelter and basic clothing, many have an uneasy relationship with their use in art — myself included. As a vegetarian who believes no animal should be killed for any reason, I feel uncomfortable with this work, although I did find common ground in the artist’s passion for exploring materials. Judging from the number of red dots on the works in this exhibition, however, a number of viewers did not experience my unease.
Niles grew up on a farm in Michigan where he hunted often, but he has only recently started thinking about that early connection to nature as a possible factor in his gravitation to this mode. As he said in our phone interview, “Maybe my roots are coming back.” He voiced no qualms about using animals, and that is his right.
It is disappointing, though, that during our interview and his artist talk he seemed uninterested in the meaning of his work or how the new reality he constructs speaks to viewers. Without content, these objects are mere, if very well-crafted, baubles. Ironically, Niles does achieve the wealth of responses that many artists seek. His sculptures delight some viewers with their craftsmanship or quirkiness and provoke others who, like myself, view the animal world in a completely different way. Whether he intended it or not, the work is sure to generate plenty of relevant conversation about man’s relationship to nature, animal rights and the uses of art.