Flora and Fauna: Contemporary Ceramics Essay

03/03/2000 - 04/22/2000

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Flora & Fauna
Cary Esser

The idea for this exhibition began several years ago, inspired by my curiosity regard­ing plant and animal imagery in historical architectural ornament. Images and abstractions from nature have been used for centuries to create the shapes and embellish the surfaces of artistic forms. To read the meanings of these motifs, I searched for their sources. Ancient embellishments were often derived from indigenous plants and animals. For example, representations of the Egyptian papyrus, the Grecian acanthus, and the Indian lotus were images that carried symbolic  or visual significance. As well, they provided a connection, a mediation, between the domesticated shelter of the built environment, the cul­ture, the society, and the enigmatic, unpredictable aspects of nature. Disseminated, recycled, and reworked over centuries and in various cultures andcontinents, ancient motifs entered the visual lexicons of many artistic traditions. Theygathered new and altered cultural meanings, and in many cases their mean­ings were consumed. Yet, regardless of a motif ‘s specific significance, plant and animal images used for ritual, special, or serviceable objects became visual and tactile referents tonature. They provid­ed humans with the means to examine, reflect upon, and express their relation­ships to other kinds of living beings, and by extension, the natural world.They still do.

This exhibition explores current works of seven artists who continue to mine a vast array of natural motifs. Their visual state­ments are evidence of the age-old impulse to represent  and interpret  plants and  animals, flora and fauna. Flora and fauna are scientific terms used to describe, classify, and order the animals and plants of a given time period or region. These artists redefine the terms by inventing new forms to explore the relationships between our contemporary industrial world, human culture, and the natural environment.

In these works,  we see the creations of hybrid figures that combine animal and plant with human and mechanical  anatomies. The hybrid form derives from heterogeneous sources, merg­ing elements of different or incongruent kinds. Hybrid is originally from the Latin word for the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar; it mingles the territories ofdomesticity and wildness, the familiar and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, the regulated and the lawless. Each of these artists uses the hybrid form to question theplace of humans in both the cultural  and natural realms.

Ovidio Giberga’s big game trophy heads are burdened with, and seem stunned by, the attachments of bizarre and absurd orthodontia. The dental devices call attention to theanimals’ teeth as a reference to the “ancient belief that teeth embody the strength and vitality of the being.” By hybridizing forms in an unexpectedand disturbing way, Gibergaspeaks to the “debate over how mining, logging, poaching, and urban encroachment are manipulating and tapping the strength and vital­ity of the wilderness.”   In these works, human intervention – that of the hunter, the taxidermist, the dentist, and the artist – is unseen, but has left its mark.

Keisuke Mizuno’s highly detailed, china-painted fruits appear to be perfect and idealized from afar, but change as the tiny sculptures come into closer range. Voracious insects feed on these luscious, delectable, but unfamiliar plant products. Embedded in the fruits’ flesh like deceased, inert seeds are tiny human skulls and fetuses. A story is being told, one which reverses the pecking order of an anthropocentric view of “nature’s” categories.

The restrained, anony­mous female figures made by Marilyn Lysohir are dressed in the 1940’s clothing style of her mother’s generation .The headless, armless figures politely stand on bases of dinosaur vertebrae from the Mesozoic Era. A prehistoric, geologic age, this period traversed hundreds of millennia, and was characterized by the development and extinction of the dinosaurs, as well as by the appearance of most flowering plants,inverte­brates, birds, and fishes of modern types. Images of these life forms, which have evolved into the conventionalized motifs of twentieth-century tattoos, are incised into the dress/bodies. Lysohir suggests the vast continuum of known time and Homo sapiens’ short lifespan in the ongoing evolution of the animate world.

For Adrian Arleo, “the word ‘nature’ can be expanded to refer to human nature, (or) psychological states, and ‘character’ in a nar­rative sense.” Arleo’s hybrids are interwoven elements that establish benevolent, empa­thetic bonds between plants, animals, and humans. In Hatchlings, a feral human/bird form emerges from a seed pod or egg. From another view of the same piece, the egg form transforms its shape to appear as the new life’s unfolding wings. “The images are meant to be open to interpreta­tion, allowing each viewer to respond with experiences, feelings, or dreams from their own life.” In Arleo’s works, humans are reminded that they are an integral part of nature. Her visual stories suggest that we are part of a “primordial, greater-than­ human force” which can compel us to higher psychic realms.

The distorted, dis­membered bodies of Adelaide Paul’s horse forms are often united with rusted, found-metal parts. She lias chosen this form as a”stand-in for the (human) body”. When these bodies are merge with metal scraps, as in Prosthesis, they become new beings that are ambiguous, as-yet-unconceived fruits, organs, or medical apparatus. Richly textured, organic, and colorful glazes “act as an aesthetic counter balance” to these perverse hybrids. The pieces insinuate that an arti­ficial contrivance is not a satisfactor substitute for the connective tissue which bonds humankind with nature. Nevertheless, Paul says, all creatures evolve, transmute, and change: we cannot know the future of our species.

Neil Forrest grafts images of insects into planes of stratified colored clays, which in turn are set into large, flat serving trays. His insect images are” filtered through the beauty of decora­tive language, but, in reality, insects are often bothersome, even frightening, and certainly perceived as ugly.” He finds him­self forming a new relationship to the nat­ural world as he portrays it through deco­ration.”Its contemplation demonstrates the proximity of beauty to ugliness.” Our var­ious readings and interpretations of nature are incongruous. Cultural production enables us to become aware of these con­tradictions. Forrest seems to assert that we need culture, perhaps we created it, to bet­ter decipher and understand our relation­ship to nature.

Fragmented, discarded, and found elements from industrial production and nature are assembled by Chris Weaver to create diora­mas and composite figures. In the human form of Birdwatcher, a mud dauber’s nest begets the form of a bird and in turn a human shoulder, a tree trunk stands in for the human trunk, and the shape of a sheet metal appendage simultaneously references a hand, a flame, a flower. Topped with a human head form, this compound human body is woven of parts from plants and animals, suggesting that we are all made from the same fabric. Yet Weaver’s assemblages can also unsettle, ambiguously placing animal forms in the contexts of human detritus and scientific observation.

What do we know of flora and fauna -the animals, and our more distant relatives, the plants  – and what do they know of us? As a member of the animal kingdom, yet the only extant species, sapiens, in our genus, Homo, humans are solitary beings in our system of scientific classification. With one foot set in culture, and the other in the animal king­dom, humans occupy an enigmatic place in the world. These artists probe the finely threaded but loosely woven gossamer connecting nature and culture.

By engaging space with clay, these artists acknowledge a refer­ence to the earth’s foundation, which supports many life forms. Clay is a source from which humans gain much of our economic and physical survival. Malleable in its raw state, clay responds to touch. When fired to a fluxing point, the glass-forming com­ponents of the ceramic minerals melt and create a hard, resistant record of the artist ‘s action. The texture and temperature of the artist’s handling and intent for a work’s shape and surface contain an expressive potential for the meaningful content of a piece. In the processing of the medium, as well as in its traditional forms of ritual and serv­ice such as pottery and architecture, clay is a material that can engage the body’s tac­tile sense. Touching, like seeing and speaking, is a sensibility, a tool these artists use to experience and examine their world.

—Cary Esser,  July 30, 1999