Detail of "Twins"
Sculptor John Morton unveiled his thesis show last week in the UAF Art department. The ceramic pieces were cast from molds taken from skinned carcasses obtained in collaboration with a local tannery. Intriguing treatments and surface textures set up a curious, instinctual dynamic of enticing a closer look at something that is on the other hand repellent given the subject matter's grotesqueness. It was the gallery equivalent of an irresistible accident where passer-bys crane their necks to see what happened. It also recalled the frequent technique employed by pro-life protesters who confront people with giant posters of dismembered fetuses.
According to Morton the show wasn't deliberately provocative or necessarily advocating any particular "pro" or "anti" position - and contrary to many reactions from the community it hardly ranks as anything even approaching shock art. He was admittedly surprised at the vehemence of some of the criticism (see sample excerpts posted below) especially the uninformed knee-jerk variety, being a self-professed "lover of animals." Morton's work set up a virtual ethical arena within which each viewer had the opportunity to confront the naked reality of human/animal issues. This nakedness was literally accentuated by the exposed vulnerability and plaintive postures of the pieces - abject contortions carrying no sense of innate grace, aesthetically pleasing form or movement (as per "Bodyworlds" plastination or even Giger). Several pieces were strongly reminiscent of classic scenes from John Carpenter's "The Thing" but avoided clichéd and unnecessarily over-the-top horror by restraining appearances to what could be achieved with subtle glazing effects.
(More after the jump)
By virtue of our relationship with the outdoors, many Alaskans are by and large culturally desensitized to using and treating animals as utilitarian products for profit, survival and amusement. Morton's pieces utilized the byproducts of trapping, hunting and taxidermy as a way to point up, as per the show's title, the unabashed reality of mortality and the consequences of these actions. However, the relative morality is subject to individual interpretation: I personally had an unfortunate conflict with another acquaintance which was precipitated by unfounded criticism of this show (art's one of the few things worth losing friends over). The claim that some of the pieces were "disrespectful" - in particular the ones with fused forms - reveals a common failure to distinguish between the real and metaphor. The value of art serving as a punching-bag or target for viewers who cannot, or will not separate the actual from the symbolic is a time-honored role.
That said, probably the only macabre instance (which stood in stark contrast with the other pieces) of gallow's humor was in the occasional golden rabbits foot:
This exhibit provoked a definite visceral response from the community: as evidenced by the comparatively controversial comments left on-line, there hasn't ever been any exhibit that poked the proverbial hornet's nest of opinion. The original story by Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Outdoors Editor Tim Mowry was picked up by AP Alaska and run all over the state in such places like Juneau, Anchorage, Kodiak and even Denver CO. One telling indication of how the show was being pitched was immediately apparent in the article's header phrase which is recycled over and over in a Google search: "For his art, Alaska sculptor uses animal carcasses." Savvy image promotion to the Lower 48 which already operates under the assumption we are some seriously bored barbarians.
"What an immoral and disgusting display. And what a despicable person to have perpetrated it. For the News-Miner to nearly cover its front page with such a stomach-wrenching image was beyond the pale. I'll never buy that paper again."
"This is disgusting. It seems like anything goes these days, as long as you call it "art." It certainly does not belong on the front page, where unsuspecting people (not to mention children) are visually assaulted by it. I believe this so-called art meets the legal definition of obscenity. [...] This reminds me of Hitler's sick experiments - and of the fact that many serial murders started out abusing animals. This kind of fascination is NOT normal."
"My kids freaked out when they logged on and were confronted by what appeared to be real skinned bunnies. Although I tried explaining it to them, they now HATE the NewsMiner."
"This "art" disrespects the dead. Can't support it and am repulsed by it. Looks too much like a mass grave or images of Auschwitz."
"What this so-called artist is doing is not art nor is it respect."
"Man them rabbits are really starting to freak me out."
A special note in that due to the mounting and bolting of many of these forms (and suspension of several others from the ceiling) an additional layer of visual interest was created by the casting of shadows. In fact I appreciated those particular works which literally stood out from the rest in this way much more than the objects themselves. Another significant aspect of the show was the outstanding design behind the overall display of Morton's pieces. My hunch is that artists who work in 3D media tend to have a better grasp of composing their art in a spatial sense which the majority of the time results in a much better gallery layout than others in the department. Viewed within the context of a clean white room added an element of clinical objectivity to an observer's experience, and perhaps in some small way aided in viewing the pieces with a detached perspective. Also there was the cumulative impact of the forms which fostered a completely different impression than one had by looking at any individual piece off by itself in another show.
Aside from the unprecedented media exposure, kudos for breaking out of the traditional academic and elitist gallery culture and crossing over into a comparatively untapped demographic. This is an angle not many artists take advantage of and makes complete sense when thinking about how to best market their work to a target audience. Just add some racks of flannel shirts and Carhartt overalls and we got us The Sportsman's Warehouse of Art.