|In less sure hands, New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design’s Dead or Alive, an exhibition of 37 international artists, whose work is composed of feathers, bones, egg shells, insects, fur, antlers, dried and rotting plants, with a few stuffed birds and animals thrown in, would be a creepy, crawly experience, one that could conceivably have people running toward the exits. Not so with this exhibition. Dead and Alive, conceived by chief curator David Revere McFadden, joined by senior curator Lowery Stokes Sims and assistant curator Elizabeth Edwards Kirrane, is an exhibition of extreme beauty, living proof, so to speak, that a sow’s ear can be turned into a silk purse. It is also, despite outwardly appearances, an intellectual adventure, one that encourages serious thought on such topics as ecology, beauty, violence to humans and animals, and most noticeably our own mortality.|
In less sure hands, New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design’s Dead or Alive, an exhibition of 37 international artists, whose work is composed of feathers, bones, egg shells, insects, fur, antlers, dried and rotting plants, with a few stuffed birds and animals thrown in, would be a creepy, crawly experience, one that could conceivably have people running toward the exits. Not so with this exhibition. Dead or Alive, conceived by chief curator David Revere McFadden, joined by senior curator Lowery Stokes Sims and assistant curator Elizabeth Edwards Kirrane, is an exhibition of extreme beauty, living proof, so to speak, that a sow’s ear can be turned into a silk purse. It is also, despite outwardly appearances, an intellectual adventure, one that encourages serious thought on such topics as ecology, beauty, violence to humans and animals, and most noticeably our own mortality.
In its use of idiosyncratic materials, the attention paid to the oddities of natural history, Dead or Alive, reminds one of a 16th-century Cabinet of Wonders, for each highly distinctive work of art appears to be a microcosm of the world. From videos, to sculptures, to highly crafted installations, there is a virtual sideshow of organic matter being transformed into art, both functional and not. Sometimes obsessions with numbers seem to be the artist’s métier. In Eight Thousand Miles of Home (2010) Thailand-based Angus Hutcheson, Ango Design’s founder and chief designer, turns some 12,000 silkworm cocoons into a beautiful, overhead cloud-like light fixture. Moon (2006), Tracey Heneberger’s sculptural wall hanging, is composed of over a thousand shellacked sardines intricately arranged in a circle. Marc Swanson’s sculpture Untitled (Antler Pile) (2010) is a glittering pyramid of deer antlers covered with thousands of hand-glued crystals, while Flock (2010), Susie MacMurray’s ominous site-specific wall, hiding in a corner of the museum, features tens of thousands of dyed black rooster feathers.
In London-based artist, Tessa Farmer’s theatrical diorama Little Savages (2007), a taxidermied fox—a stand-in for humans—appears to be under attack by insects, both crawling and flying. Dried slugs, silk moth cocoons, and plant roots are attached to its fur, a wasp’s nest hangs from its tail, and a bird with an insect in its mouth is perched on its back. Here we are faced, “fast forwarding,” as curator Sims notes in the exhibition’s catalog, with “the cycle of nature in terms of death, disposal, and decay.” In On Top of the World (2009) Claire Morgan, also London-based, using transparent nylon threaded through hundreds of dead Bluebottle flies, fashions an eerie army of flying creatures into a suspended geometrically layered cube. On top of the cube, invisible to all but the top layer of flies, the artist has added a red spider, introducing the moment when disaster threatens orderly perfection.
Dutch artist Levi van Veluw is a kind of a performance artist as well as a sculptor and photographer. Veluw, at age 25, the youngest artist in the exhibition, uses his body, specifically his head and shoulders, as a canvas on which to build natural landscapes in Landscape I (2008). Using seaweed, and other organic materials to fashion flora and fauna, as well as stones, tiny plastic animals, trucks, lampposts, and telephone poles—all affixed to his painted face—he recreates the world while simultaneously being part of it. Before “removing his new face,” the artist, represented here by three photographs and an amazing video featuring a moving toy train that circles around his landscaped head, documents each creation. Also utilizing synthetic materials to recreate nature is Cuban-born, Mallorca-based artist, Jorge Mayet. In Cayendo Suave (Falling Softly) (2009), the artist, using simple electrical wires, papier mậché, and feathers, gives us a super-realistic tree. Like an angel suspended in midair, the tree with a surreal clutch of feathers attached to the end of its roots, is astonishingly beautiful.
Keith W. Bentley’s Cauda Equina (Horse Tail) (1995-2007), a labor of love, as well as a paean and a eulogy, to the thousands of horses slaughtered annually in this country for their meat, took 12 years to complete. Using the hairs from 250 horses, Bentley stitched and knotted nearly a million and a half individual hairs onto a fabric which in turn was attached to a full-sized taxidermy form of a horse, creating a kind of mourning veil, not unlike those worn by widows during the Victorian era. On the lighter side—just perhaps—is Billie Grace Lynn’s Mad Cow Motorcycle (2008), in which she has mounted the skeleton of an entire cow over a working motorcycle. At the foot of this “kinetic sculpture” is a video which shows the artist careening through the streets of Miami while passersby, those not aghast, look on in amusement. Speaking of cows slaughtered to meet human needs, curator McFadden wryly notes in his catalog essay, “even in death this cow is not allowed to rest in peace.”
Definitely on a lighter side, despite the gravity of its various subjects, is Apothecarium Moderne, a collaborative work of artists Tim Tate, co-founder and director of the Washington Glass School and Studio outside of Washington, D.C., and Connecticut-based artist Marc Petrovic. Lined up against the wall are nine hand-blown glass apothecary jars, each one filled to the brim with talismans that offer a cure for various maladies such as loss of faith, overpopulation, ennui, identity theft, and intelligent design. Etched on the outside of each jar is a cure-related story. Apothecary #1 Cure for Erectile Dysfunction, one of the more humorous works, features a photo of Betty Page, the iconic pinup model from the 50s, surrounding by oyster shells, and Enzyte, a natural male enhancement pill. The tale engraved on this jar tells the story of little David, who arrives in Manhattan by bus and meets a freakishly tall woman with an Adam’s apple, who takes him to her flat in Spanish Harlem, gets him addicted to Absinthe, and makes him a man.
One of the more unusual works on view is Alastair Mackie’s Untitled (+/-), (2009). Here we are faced with a two-part installation, each work dramatically placed for effect on its own concrete plinth. Resting on the first plinth is a pile of thousands of mouse skeletons—all eaten, digested, and regurgitated by barn owls—which the artist collected over the course of a year. Occupying plinth two is a loom with a piece of fabric woven from mouse fur which the artist separated from these bones. Like much of the work in this exhibition, Mackie’s mouse-centric installation speaks to the relationship of things and events in the endless cycle of life and death. A strong point of this exhibition is the simply written labels that tell us about the artist as well as each work on view. Once we digest the ideas behind each work, and the process each artist uses to create their work, everything falls into place, naturally so it seems.
As curator Lowery Stokes Sims notes in the museum’s beautifully appointed catalog, “the work in Dead or Alive might challenge usual and habitual notions of beauty, but artists can extrude beauty from the most base and defiled materials. This maneuvering of a transcendent experience from trash was given a specifically psychological and emotional role in art making by the Surrealists, who linked it with concepts such as ‘the marvelous’ or ‘convulsive beauty’—both of which were based on the experience of the ‘uncanny.’ Of particular interest is what Hal Foster called understanding the ‘marvelous’ as ‘signal(ing) a rupture in the natural order…challeng(ing)…rational causality…(and) its fascination with magic and alchemy.’”