Ever since Stone Age artists painted herds loping across the caves of Altamira (and on through Damien Hirst’s bestiary), animals have served artists as subject and symbol. Three young Atlantans — Kelly O’Brien, Sam Parker and Nikki Starz — add their own takes to that long history in “Feral Flirtations: Artists Playing With Animals” at Kibbee Gallery. The show closes with a party tomorrow, November 20, starting at 6 p.m.
Starz, who earned her BFA at Kennesaw State University this year, contributed “Hairless Animal Birthday Party.” Dogs wearing a conical party hat, a rat in a tiara and a mutilated rabbit share a low pedestal amid sparkly festive décor. The animals — made of Hydrocal (a plaster-like substance) — are strikingly realistic in form and detail, even though painted Pepto-Bismol pink.
The hats and expressions add an anthropomorphic touch, bringing to mind literary traditions (“The Wind in the Willows”), Disney movies, kitschy figurines and our pavlovian amusement at animals that act like people. Starz also references the history of polychrome sculpture, particularly Spanish Baroque artist Luisa Roldán, but that association is overpowered by cuteness, scale and palette. The disemboweled bunny complicates what at first blush seems like a sight gag and introduces the tension between attraction and repulsion that is Starz’s stated goal. She has her technique down. If her ideas develop commensurately, she could be formidable.
Sam Parker, better known for drawings (he did the clever lettering of the show title over the fireplace), exhibits a group of assemblages that refer to personal experiences of a difficult childhood. Each is a figure of sorts, composed of doll’s heads, boxes/houses that suggest torsos and limbs of taxidermied, often clawed animals sticking out of them. (Damien Hirst’s taxidermy has come home to roost, so to speak. See also Marcus Kenney at Marcia Wood Gallery.) The heads are often imprisoned inside the houses, a metaphor that doubles as a description of powerlessness and of the childhood hurt that never goes away.
Some works are disconcertingly whimsical, given their subject matter, or too obviously corporeal. The most successful pieces, such as “You Never Came When I Called” (at right), exploit the disjunction of parts, scale (e.g., tiny rows of human hands versus long animal legs) and materials as well as the contrast between the innocence of doll’s heads and the menace of claws, to evocative effect.
Parker uses animals as metaphor for man’s beastliness. Starz speaks to our impulse to give animals human personalities. Kelly O’Brien capitalizes on both. The Georgia State University sculpture grad student made animal hats (headgear with actual antlers, fur and so on) for herself and the other artists, based on her appraisal of their appearances and personalities, which they wore for the opening. The hats hang on hooks like bedraggled animals next to her ebulliently garish mixed-media portraits of the artists in their costumes. If the portraits weren’t so antic and she hadn’t positioned them as part of a series aimed at embarrassing her friends, one might connect the work to the mythic tradition of the man-beast — David Atmejad’s werewolves come to mind — which incarnates fantasies and fears of our animal nature.
O’Brien also exhibits her carefully crafted and delightfully imaginative soft sculptures. These mutant stuffed animals, each resting on a custom-designed pedestal, are confections of felt, the furry plush-toy cloth, stitching and found materials. They might be cleverly designed reproductions of real animals, references to pop-culture creations (Yoda) or blobby beasties of her own design.
Occasionally they get gory. A creepy creature with real dentures, coyote claws and alligator paws sits in a pool of coagulated blood (right). But it’s too cute to be disturbing, and the title, “I Want to Talk About the Advantages of Crating Children,” is like a punch line for a New Yorker cartoon. If O’Brien intends a deep reading of her work, she has covered her tracks. If her intention is to offer the pleasure of her craftsmanship, wit and imagination, then she succeeds handily.