DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park

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Terrors and Wonders: Monsters in Contemporary Art

September 15, 2001 - January 6, 2002

 

Following are two essays from the catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition titled "Terrors and Wonders: Monsters in Contemporary Art," organized by the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. The essays are reprinted with permission of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.

 

 

Monsters Everywhere and Forever

by Nick Capasso, Curator

 

Monsters are everywhere, and always have been. These terrible and wonderful beings, since the dawn of human consciousness, have lurked at the edges and stood front and center in all our far-flung cultures. Their ubiquity and longevity are based on their power and adaptability as symbols and metaphors for a great number of things, all centered upon anxiety. Whenever we are bothered, nervous, confused, frightened, uncertain, threatened, alienated, oppressed, repressed, confined, irrational, guilty, ill, flawed, sad, or angry monsters can appear. They are part and parcel of our condition, our imagination, our spirituality, our arts, and they won't go away - ever. We need them too much, and hence we are ever finding them, creating them, carrying them with us, and surrounding ourselves with them. They are legion.

Monsters come in two varieties: imaginary and real. The imaginary ones are much more common, and are visionary creations based on perversions of nature. The hybrid - the most familiar type of monster - confuses nature's categories through the mixing and matching of body parts. The chimera (head of a lion, body of a goat, tail of a serpent), the mermaid (head and arms of a woman, body and tail of a fish), and Frankenstein's monster (a construction of organs from various humans) are all well-known hybrids. Monsters are also creatures that display extreme physiognomic exaggeration or deformity, like the one-eyed Cyclops and the flesh-dripping zombie, or beings that have unnaturally multiplied body parts, like the many-armed Shiva and the many-headed Hydra. Humans or animals that are normal in all respects, save for their supernatural size (Jack's giant, King Kong), and beings that are manifestly unreal (any number of weird extra-terrestrials), are also monsters.

Real monsters are blessedly rare. They are what have been called freaks, jokes of nature (lusus naturae), terata, and natural anomalies. They are nature gone wrong, without the aid of the imagination, and include human and animal conjoined twins, real giants and dwarves, micro- and hydrocephalics, hermaphrodites, and others who suffer from profound congenital deformities. While the whimsy and wonder of a mythical being like a mermaid may at first seem worlds apart from the profound tragedy of a child with multiple fatal birth defects, the realms of imaginary and real monsters are indeed closely connected, and in some respects inseparable. Throughout history, the creation and dissemination of images of what seem to be fantastic monsters can be traced to single sources in real terata: a two-headed sheep, or a child born with flippers rather than arms. Moreover, as metaphor, imaginary and real monsters carry the same content, provoke the same dread, and elicit the same wonder.

Over the centuries, across the globe, images of monsters have flown forth from amazing dreams and tortured wombs to populate all corners of what we have labeled The Humanities: religion, art, literature, and philosophy. Monsters are prevalent themes in mythology, folklore, fairy tales, vernacular culture, satire, psychology, cartography, alchemy, astrology, heraldry, architectural ornament, decorative design, political cartoons, the cinema, the carnival, the circus, the freak-show, courts of royalty, and the grandparent of the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities. Many of the foundational texts of a Western liberal arts education - The Hebrew Bible, Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, the Metamorphoses (Ovid and Kafka), Beowulf, The Inferno - are chock-full of monsters. Think also of Caliban, Gargantua, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, the Golem, incubi and succubi, Dracula, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Headless Horseman, Chang and Eng, Humpty Dumpty, Pip and Flip, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Giles Goat-Boy, the Incredible Hulk, and the host of alien extra-terrestrials - almost all monsters - in science fiction. Monsters have also become proud symbols of national and cultural identity: the Chinese dragon, the Mexican Quetzlcoatl, the two-headed German eagle.

One might think that something so commonplace would at some point be rendered impotent by its sheer familiarity. Not monsters - they have never failed to compel, even in contemporary Western culture where publishers, toy manufacturers, TV, and Hollywood have conspired to de-fang and de-claw them, to make them palatable for consumption by an ever-squeamish bourgeois market. Despite cuddly Muppets and Pokemon characters, and the cheap thrills provided by the new-and-improved Mummy and Godzilla, monsters can and do pack powerful emotional and psychological wallops. Our primal fears have not gone away, and the monster remains the most effective tool for visualizing and confronting them. Contemporary artists know this, and many of the participants in Terrors and Wonders have availed themselves of the tried-and-true iconography and metaphoric potentials of monsters.

The most ancient monsters, in the histories of religion, mythology, and visual representation, are the hybrids. These creatures, part animal (or vegetable), part human, express the fundamental anxiety of human separation from the natural order by virtue of self-consciousness. The shaman, with the mask of a beast, was the monster incarnate, and sought to address the breach between animal instinct and human knowledge, and to heal the profound alienation caused by the capacities to judge, to reflect, and to act according to will. Monsters thus, from the first, reflected, inhabited, and transgressed boundaries. This liminal quality is the root of the monster's power. It goes where we cannot, where we dare not, and thereby can express our fears about all the gray areas that result from seeing the world as paired sets of dualities: life/death, good/evil, human/divine, nature/culture, saved/damned, known/unknown, self/other. Since myth and religion seek to both frame and erase these dualities, monsters dwell happily and abundantly in their troubling fissures. In our earliest religions - shamanism and animism - monsters abound, and the pantheons of antiquity were crowded with them. In the Greco-Roman world, monsters served as the mythological obverse of more human-oriented gods and heroes: Apollo vs. the Python, Herakles vs. the Hydra, Theseus vs. the Minotaur, etc. And the world's great enduring religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - are replete with monsters. In myth and religion, monsters play the roles of creators, destroyers, protectors, guides, tormentors, healers, and defenders. They are messengers, revealing portents and delivering warnings (the word "monster" derives in part from the Latin monere, "to show," which also lies at the root of "demonstrate"). The alter-ego of the monotheist god - the Devil - is usually described in art, literature, and sacred texts as a hideous hybrid monster. While more ancillary to modern scriptural exegeses, monsters like angels, demons, and minor divinities continue to figure importantly in myths of creation and eschatology (especially apocalypse), as heavenly messengers and protectors, and as enforcers of morality.

All this heavy psychological and spiritual baggage is carted into the twenty-first century by contemporary monster makers. Christopher Sharp's aptly titled sculpture, Intellect and Instinct, references one of the oldest-known hybrid monsters, the Stag-Man. This creature, with the head and antlers of a deer and the body of a man, is a central figure in shamanic religion and ancient myth, and appears as a recurring theme in Paleolithic cave paintings. William E. Parker's series of hand-painted photographs captures the metamorphosis of the Wild Man to the Green Man, mythic territory that that psychically describes a shift from hunting to agriculture as a man/animal hybrid becomes man/vegetable. Richard Rosenblum's monumental Manscape is the Green Man run amok. Aida Laleian, Kukuli Velarde, and Sally Fine make use of familiar Classical monsters like centaurs, satyrs, and mermaids. Romas Juozas Banaitas, John Casey, Lisa Clague, Amy Cutler, Laurie Hogin, Michael Philip Manheim, Stacy Latt Savage, Ayae Takahashi, Harold Tovish, Cristina Vergano, and Joseph Wheelwright imagine idiosyncratic hybrids, but like their pre-historic and Classical compatriots, their monsters express, in part, the atavistic complexities of our relationships to nature. We are animal. We are human. This is wonderful. We are terrified.

We are always terrified, too, by death and damnation. The chthonic realm has traditionally been the province of monsters, and the skeletal creatures of Savage, Wheelwright, and Rosamond Purcell seem poised at the gates of Hell. Accompanying them are Casey's legions of little demons, Jo Sandman's departed souls (or gibbering shades), and Clague and Cutler's creatures that look like they stepped out of the City of Dis as painted by the 16th-century monster master, Hieronymus Bosch.

Other contemporary artists whose monsters make profound connections with the past include Howard Johnson, Megumi Naitoh, Rosamond Purcell, and Elizabeth Olbert. Johnson's drawings rely in part on Medieval precedents that include monsters from interlace patterns in illuminated manuscripts, bestiaries, and celestial and terrestrial cartography. But instead of existing at the margins (to signify the unknown), Johnson's monsters crash into the center where they writhe in occult hierarchies, proclaim apocalypse, and express a suffocating fear of the void. Naitoh and Purcell each make reference to the decorative elements of Medieval ecclesiatical architecture. Naitoh's Gate Gargoyles are warnings for a technological age, and Purcell cunningly juxtaposes photographs to reveal that the sources of certain visionary images can be traced to natural anomalies, like conjoined twins, rather than to purely mystical experiences. And Olbert, by subtitling her paintings of alien life forms with verses from the Book of Genesis (".male and female He created them," Gen. 1:27) posits the spiritual speculation that life on other planets, or in other dimensions, might follow one consistent set of divine laws.

Monsters also live along branches of myth somewhat less fraught with philosophical import, but no less important in explaining and structuring human morals and behavior: folklore and fairy tales. Amy Cutler and Ayae Takahashi's drawings have illustrational qualities that seem to have sprung from retained memories of Mother Goose or the Brothers Grimm. Takahashi conflates childhood tales from East and West, while Cutler's monsters are disgorged from her subconscious. Pat Keck's Seated Giantess not only conjures up the colossi of fairyland, but also the creepier aspects of the carnival, puppetry, automata, and robots. And Arthur Gonzalez eerily mixes religious and folkloric reference by repeatedly serving up Pinocchio's head on a silver charger, à la John the Baptist.

As the influence of religion and superstition on human culture and affairs diminished in recent centuries, monsters found new roles centered less on the divine and more on the individual psyche. With the intellectual illumination of the Enlightenment came shadows. The more we understood the world around us, the less we seemed to understand our own selves. Monsters crept into the dark void left by the increasingly questionable notion of an eternal soul. The Romantic writers and artists grasped this notion immediately, and monsters became a favorite metaphor to express new anxieties surrounding the self, and its conjoined twin, the other. Monsters also appeared as the obverse of the now common coin of Reason, and as catalysts for stimulating strong emotions in readers or viewers.

Old monsters from the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions, along with the new ones imagined for novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, became powerful and insightful tools for expressing the complexities of the self. The Romantics were particularly interested in the mysterious and less appealing aspects of human nature. Artists and writers plumbed the depths of their subconscious minds to dredge out monsters that could stand on the borders between propriety and deviance, self-control and repressed desire (usually for sex and power), and sanity and insanity. This tendency continued unabated through nineteenth-century Symbolism, and the Expressionist and Surrealist Movements of the twentieth century. For artists, monsters have also served as powerful symbols of alienation. Their marginality and perversity were apt signifiers of the accelerating distance between man and God, as well as of the misfit status of creative individuals within bohemian culture. And the monster was, and still is, of course, the other: the frightening mirror-aspect of self that we project onto the world. Flawed beings, scapegoats, the enemy, the unknown, and the damned must all be willed into being as foils to our own inherent beauty, virtue, integrity, and truth.

In Terrors and Wonders, it could be argued that all the artists are dealing, on some level, with aspects of the expression of self and/or the other. A few of them deliberately create self-portraits. Kukuli Velarde sculpted a barely-restrained satyr to expose the excruciating tensions between self-control and desire, and Aida Laleian has photographically merged her own face and torso with the bodies of a variety of beasts to posit a range of Dionysian selves. Karl Baden cobbles together voracious, tortured, alien beings from details of his own body, radically rearranging his physiognomy to more fully expose his emotional state. Romas Juozas Banaitas combines his face, his wife's body, and the horns of a bull into a proud golden monster of ravening passions.

Reason may have crippled the church and the monarchy, but not the monsters. They beat their fearsome wings about the bulwarks of knowledge, and the rational mind must be ever-vigilant against attack. As Francisco Goya, Romantic monster-maker par excellence, observed in his famous 1799 etching, Il sueño de la razon produce monstruos (the sleep of reason produces monsters). A world-view circumscribed by order, taxonomy, and the normative is constantly called into question by beings that resist classification and have no real limits or boundaries - the children of chaos. Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who created perhaps the most enduring monster of the modern age, took science to its logical conclusion where it became the ultimate act of hubris by assuming God's generative prerogative. At this point, reason careened into madness.

In the contemporary art world, many artists are concerned with critiques of established systems of knowledge, and in this exhibition, three artists use monsters to specifically address this issue. In Cristina Vergano's paintings, freaks of nature - real and imagined - are described in a precise, orderly, almost Neo-classical style. The tension between bizarre subject matter and ordered aesthetics subverts the imposition of rational systems upon the unknowable. Randal Thurston attempts to reconcile Frankenstein's monster with Diderot's Encyclopedia in an uneasy marriage that emasculates myth and taints science. And Rosamond Purcell's literally breathtaking photographs of natural anomalies offer proof that reason has yet to explain away the extremes of nature, or the horror we feel in their beauty.

Monsters also figured heavily into Romantic obsessions with the sublime, the grotesque, the macabre, and the extreme - indeed, any state of mind guaranteed to elicit powerful emotions. This use of monsters continues. Look at the creatures that populate Terrors and Wonders: you will find them sad, lonely, vulnerable, angry, frustrated, and tortured - and you will feel empathy along with anxiety. Heartfelt emotional response and identification is central to this group of contemporary artists, who are eager to make contemporary viewers - who are often numbed by Postmodern irony, image saturation, and simulacra - feel something.

Monsters are universal metaphors for anxiety, and by appealing to pan-cultural and pan-historical images and iconographies, contemporary artists create content that transcends today's rapidly fleeting contexts. Monsters - and our responses to them - connect us with the past, with all of humanity, and with ourselves. Some of these monsters may be old, but the terrors and wonders they provoke are, with each encounter, new.

 

About the author

Nicholas Capasso, Ph.D. is a Curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the largest museum of contemporary art in New England. He has worked extensively with contemporary art, outdoor sculpture, and commemorative public art as an art historian, curator, critic, lecturer, and design selection panelist. In addition to his work at DeCordova, he has organized exhibitions of outdoor sculpture for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, the Boston Children's Museum, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, and the Attleboro Museum, the Brookline Council on Arts and Humanities, and Bradley Palmer State Park, in Massachusetts. He has also participated in outdoor sculpture and public art juries for projects in Portland, Maine, and Acton, Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He recently served as a juror for the "1999 Directors/Curators Invitational" at the Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minnesota, and is on the advisory board of the Annemarie Garden sculpture park in Calvert County, Maryland. Capasso is currently writing a book on contemporary American sculptor John Van Alstine for Editions Ariel.

Capasso has written on aspects of contemporary commemorative public art for Sculpture magazine and Public Art Review, and has lectured on the topic at the Smithsonian Institution, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Rhode Island School of Design, Boston University, Clark University, Wellesley College, Hartwick College, the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, and the International Sculpture Center. He recently served on selection panels for the Boston Women's Memorial and the Silver Spring, Maryland, Veterans Memorial Plaza national design competitions. His doctoral dissertation, written for Rutgers University, is The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Context: Commemorative Public Art in America, 1960-1997.

 

 

Monsters Here and Now

by Jennifer Uhrhane, Curatorial Fellow

 

Everyday we are exposed to monsters - of one kind or another - where we eat, sleep, relax, work, learn, live, and travel. Wherever we look - and it is not necessary to look hard, long, or carefully - monsters pop up in the most common places. The prevalence of monsters in contemporary culture is astounding, and it is amazing that despite this widespread exposure, we never cease to be frightened of them or fascinated by them. Almost from day one of our existence, monsters enter our lives through advertising, television, cartoons, film, books, comics, and other constantly evolving media forms. We grow up on monsters and with monsters. (left: Laurie Hogin, The Body You've Always Wanted #1: Imagine Yourself, 1997, oil on panel, 29 x 25 inches, photo by Natalie Domchenko, lent by the artist, courtesy Littlejohn Contemporary, New York, NY and Peter Miller Gallery, Chicago, Ill)

I, with other kids growing up in the 70's, was no exception to this. As toddlers, we met hoards of monsters on the Muppet Show and Sesame Street. In later years, kids watched Fraggle Rock, and more recently, Barney and the Teletubbies. Eating Boo Berry, Count Chocula, or Lucky Charms cereal each morning, we watched Scooby Doo villians and ghosts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, the Incredible Hulk, Batman, Spiderman, and all the rest of the Superheroes on TV. All monsters. During the day we would find many of the same characters in our comic books, on our lunch boxes, at McDonald's, and on friends' iron-on t-shirts. By dinnertime, we would be hiding our Green Giant peas under a napkin, hoping to still get Keebler cookies (made by elves!) for dessert. At bedtime, with monsters all over our pajamas, we would listen to our parents reading fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk, Puff the Magic Dragon, Where the Wild Things Are, and dozens of Dr. Seuss stories. All monsters. As we became older, and could read by ourselves, we devoured Dune, as well as Stephen King, Anne Rice, and J.R.R. Tolkein novels. Grocery shopping with Mom would expose us to the greatest myth-makers of our present time: the tabloid papers. We would stare, fascinated by the latest actual unretouched photos in the Weekly World News of Bat Boy and headlines that read: "The Missing Link Between Human and Reptile, Alive!" All monsters. Assigned reading for English class would include, Alice in Wonderland, Beowulf, The Metamorphosis, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in addition to dozens of Greek myths. All monsters. Through the years, we would be mesmerized by movies like Altered States, Clash of the Titians, E.T., Evil Dead, The Exorcist, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, and the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Trek, and Star Wars series. All monsters. On TV around the same time were the Addams Family, Bewitched, In Search of Land of the Lost, Manimal, The Munsters, and Ripley's Believe it or Not. Later movies included the Alien series, Beetlejuice, The Fly, and Jurassic Park. All monsters. There were also movies like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, Mars Attacks, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Men in Black, and The Mummy. All monsters. Out of college, and into the job market, we would bring our laptops into Starbuck's - whose logo features a mermaid, a classic monster - and job search on Monster.com. Right now, we can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hercules, Xena, and X-Files on TV, and go see movies like The Mummy Returns, Shrek and, soon, Monsters, Inc. All monsters. (right: Lisa Clague, Convoluted Dreams, 2000, (detail), ceramic, mixed media, 86 x 28 x 24 inches, courtesy John Elder Gallery, New York, NY)

Every generation has its own examples of the pervasiveness of monsters in popular culture: superhero comics and Mad Magazine of the '60s; B-movie horror and Sci-Fi classics of the '50s; and the dime novels and cliff-hanger movie serials of the '30s and '40s.

The "camp" factor and the sheer predominance of monsters should have watered down the fear monsters induce or the interest they spark, but this has not happened, and as our society advances, new sources for monsters are born, and unique, evermore timely and frightening monsters come to life. Thus, our fascination continues.

TV and radio talk shows bring us daily doses of modern monsters or freaks, from people who live alternative lifestyles (transvestites and people who are anything but heterosexual) to those who have abnormal physical attributes (conjoined twins, people suffering from rare diseases, and those who have exaggerated body sizes or parts). In short, people who at one time would have been part of Barnum's circus sideshow are now on the modern freak show stages of Oprah, Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. Contemporary society has this morbid curiosity about the freak, and its complete infiltration into mainstream entertainment is proof: the reality of it scares us, yet we are so fascinated we couldn't possibly change the channel or turn off the radio.

The authentic freak show has actually been resurrected by people like Jim Rose, whose Jim Rose Circus Sideshow features, among others, Rose himself who hammers nails into his nose and crushes glass with his face, Mr. Lifto who picks up heavy objects with his pierced nipples and other body parts, and Lizardman who is actually in the process of transforming his physical self, through plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry, and tattooing, into a lizard-human hybrid.

Some people, like Lizardman, are going so far as to become the monster. Body modification and plastic surgery have exploded in popularity. New York socialite Jocelyne Wildenstein, a.k.a. Tiger Woman or Cat Lady, in attempting to save her marriage and be more appealing to her husband (an avid hunter), had a plastic surgeon transform her face so that it resembled a feline's. People go to extremes to be different in a world of the mass-marketed image (or to be as close as possible to the ideal image) and to explore the unknown in a world of excess information. They are transforming themselves, radically or subtly, into beings that are not quite normal or human anymore - literally, monsters. Members of Goth culture mimic vampirish behavior, practice bloodletting, and follow a certain lifestyle, makeup and dress code. Some teens and young adults become the characters of mystical and monstrous beings by participating in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Every year, people dress up as monsters for Halloween. Even something as simple as a witch costume still allows us to transform ourselves into a monster. Temporary though it may be, the role-playing or costume allows us to be something other than human. It allows us to scare ourselves and transform ourselves - just a little. We like being scared, we like to experiment with the danger of it all, and that is why monsters still captivate us. (left: Megumi Naitoh, Gate Gargoyle #2, 1999-2000, clay, steel, masonite, 77x 15 1/2 x 21 inches, photo by Ri Anderson)

Perhaps the monsters that most disturb us right now are those that the average person knows the least - or even nothing - about. A lack of knowledge or understanding of these monsters results in a complete lack of control over them - and that is the terrifying part. In the last few years, most likely starting with Dolly, the infamous cloned sheep, we have become aware of scientists', researchers', and geneticists' activities that some believe border on playing God. As a result of trying to make life easier, healthier, and longer, and food more abundant, resistant to disease, longer lasting, and overall "new and improved," scientists have essentially reengineered nature. Meddling with what naturally occurs, they have altered genetic code to produce breeds of tomatoes that take forever to rot, sheep that can be bred without the help of sex, and soon enough, babies that will conform to parents' exact specifications. Things that are not perceived as natural, or are not quite "human" due to uncharacteristic features or genetic abnormalities, are considered to be monsters. Advances in science are resulting in the creation of new monsters, ones we never before have seen or imagined. And that is a frightening reality, eliciting significantly stronger reactions than those from anything like Nosferatu, so-called deviant sexual behavior, or Lizardman. These kinds of new monsters, under the control of scientists (not us), threaten to change our physical being, our future food supply, our future offspring, and our very existence on planet Earth. This issue is among the most significant sources of content in contemporary art.

If you were to pick up any art magazine right now (ARTFORUM, ArtNEWS, Art in America, etc.) you would find numerous exhibitions and artists that use monsters to address anxieties about life today. Of course, these exhibitions and artworks are about other topics as well, but a continuous metaphorical and visual theme has been identified, and this is the theme of Terrors and Wonders.

A recent exhibition that concentrated on the horrors of genetic and biological developments, such as the controlled breeding of plants, animals, and humans, was Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (Exit Art, NY, 2000). All monsters.This theme of science- and technology-gone-awry was also rampant through the Sensation exhibition (highlighting the British avant-garde, it was first shown at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1997), though it took a far back-burner position to other issues of religion, decency, and public funding. Exhibitions referring to earlier science were Whichkraft? (Trans Hudson Gallery, NY, 1999), which contained a number of monsters (hybrid creatures, devils, angels) that referenced art history, alchemy, and the supernatural and Unnatural Science (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000) which addressed nature and genetics, as well. The main theme of My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation (Des Moines Art Center, 2001) was Japanese anime film and comic influence on artwork. However, in exhibiting humanoids, cyborgs, extra-terrestrials, and other kinds of creatures, it also demonstrated an uneasiness about science, the supernatural, science fiction, pop culture, sex, and body image. Although anime claims to promote a positive opinion of technology, this show was full of monsters created by this good technology gone bad. As anime is used in many forms of children's entertainment, it also raises issues of childhood memories and anxieties. pixerinaWITCHERINA (University Galleries, Illinois State University, 2001) and Wonderland (Massachusetts College of Art, 2001) explored childhood fantasy, recollection, and play, and included mythical characters, hybrids, and other monsters in fairytale narratives. More popular contemporary myths and sources of worry and fascination are aliens, the possibility of abductions, and U.F.O.'s. The U.F.O. Project (Mobius, Boston, MA, 1996), Visions of Space and U.F.O.'s in Art (American Primitive Gallery, NY, 1996), Psy-Fi (Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT, 1996), and Above and Beyond (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, CA, 2000) all included images of monsters while exploring extraterrestrial themes. ALIEN: ARTFROMANDABOUTELSEWHERE (The Gallery @ Green Street, Jamaica Plain, MA, 1999) speaks of the alien in terms of alienation (cultural or otherwise) and the other, the unfamiliar. Bizarro World (The Revolving Museum, Boston, MA, 1999) exhibited fantastic imagery and creatures to explore issues surrounding the supernatural and freaks, as well as sex and identity conflicts. Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late-20th-Century Art (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, 1997) covered the gamut of modern themes. It related historical content to contemporary interests and anxieties, as would be expected from its title.

It would seem that artists are becoming more and more frightened of what they see occurring around them. Monsters have been and will always be the embodiment of fear and the warning of bad things to come; so it is appropriate that monsters are being used by artists to express these contemporary anxieties. Everything in this exhibition is a monster. By focusing exclusively on monsters, Terrors and Wonders hopes to provide a unique perspective on the current relevance of this enduring cultural issue. These artworks caution us about genetic engineering and biotechnology, but also show monsters that communicate preoccupations with nature and environmental decay; the body, body image, and disease; sex and gender; aliens and science fiction; childhood; the media, advertising, and consumer culture. (right: Joseph Wheelwright, Kneeling Angel, 1986, elk, cow, and boar bones, cat upper mandible, dental acrylic, 17 x 22 x 20 inches, photo by the artist)

Aziz + Cucher, Bryan Crockett, Luisa Kazanas, Harold Tovish, and Joe Wheelwright take on genetic engineering and biotechnology issues in different ways. Aziz + Cucher's digital photographs show living skin, freckles and all, wrapped around almost recognizable machine-made parts, thus creating a modern chimera, though without any recognizable face or limbs, and seemingly no way to breathe. Crockett empathizes with one of the most commonly sacrificed animals used in scientific research (the mouse), while Kazanas grows human eyes on a potato (rather than an ear on the back of a mouse). Tovish makes his own new species of crustacean from Dracula-like hands, tying in horror film to the horrors of transgenic mutation. Wheelwright's bone sculptures create, in three dimensions, what x-rays of fantastic creatures might look like. Lisa Clague's Convoluted Dream seems a mistake of engineering with too many of some body parts, not enough of others, and mixed human and animal features.

Messing with nature can also mean polluting or otherwise destroying the earth and its inhabitants. Crockett's Fallout (Necrophilia Series) looks like an animal turned inside out; Sally Fine's mermaids have been formed out of the detritus of the ocean; and Megumi Naitoh's modern gargoyles stand as a warning and a reminder of what can happen if the environment is compromised. Nature can create its own monsters in reaction to human intervention.

Michael Philip Manheim, Richard Rosenblum, and Ryo Toyonaga present imagery inspired by nature. Manheim's monsters, almost bodiless primal forces, have been released into the woods. In the process of developing into an animal life form derived from organic materials, Rosenblum's Manscape rises from the swamp. Toyonaga's monsters have come from the sea and outer space, but are also influenced by a human or mechanical force, illustrating conflict between nature and technology.

While humans may clash with nature when it comes to improving their own appearance, nature can clash with humans when it allows disease to occur. Nina Levy, in her series of photographs, explores the possibilities of body alteration: plastic surgery, bodybuilding, collagen injections, and cosmetic dentistry. Each is taken to the absolute extreme to illustrate how far we go to achieve the normal (model) body. Elizabeth Olbert's What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger references resistance to disease, but also psychological battles. Lisa Osborn examines the human form, and abstracts it just so far as to seem human AND unnatural: simultaneously comparing anorexia, disease, and dismemberment with a graceful statuesque beauty. Rosamond Purcell elegantly documents the sad tragedies of disease and defect that actually do occur in nature. Whereas for some of us, we purposefully make ourselves into monsters, for others, it is nature that makes us into monsters.

With body anxiety comes anxieties about gender and sex. Four artists in the exhibition have monstrous works that portray contradictions of gender: Romas Juozas Banaitas, Kazanas, Levy, and Osborn. Osborn's works are not completely dual-gendered, yet King and Queen illustrate how men and women, as they sag and age, begin to resemble each other. The duality surrounding sex also brings up contradictions like security and risk, attraction and repulsion, permission and restriction. Arthur Gonzalez' phallus-nosed men are beheaded and punished. Cynthia Atwood's flying vagina dentata look touchable, beautiful, and creepy all at once - and the sheer quantity of them would be threatening to anyone. Clague's creature combines violence, frustration, and beauty. She has been muffled by beak-like masks, immobilized and de-sexed by the metal cage below her waist, yet with her abundance of breasts still seems to have the potential of being fertile and desirable. And Howard Johnson uses the ubiquitous black lace g-string, an ultimate symbol of sexiness, in drawings wherein monster-aliens dominate the page.

A number of alien monsters can be found in Terrors and Wonders. Many artists were greatly influenced by the classic sci-fi films they viewed as children. This influence produced lasting effects on their development as people and artists: Atwood's Specimen with its blank metallic eyes and odd little baby hands and Swarm (whose name says it all); Karl Baden's creatures with an overabundance of eyes, tentacles, and skin; Pat Keck's Giantess, who is only slightly less threatening than if she were able to stand at full height; Olbert's traditional portrait of an alien couple; and last but not least, Ayae Takahashi's spaceman in her version of Sleeping Beauty.

Influences and memories of childhood also derive from fairy tales. Amy Cutler and Takahashi use these storybook characters in different ways. Cutler's creatures physically become their function or situation, as if she is confusing how they look with what they do. Takahashi combines Eastern with Western stories and throws in aliens, sex, and death.

Just as fairy tales, and later, science fiction, were influences when we were kids, television ad content is probably the biggest influence on us now. Bombarded with slick image selling, we can be sucked in, buying into deception, without even realizing what's happening. Perhaps the most vocal critic of the media, advertising, and consumer culture in this exhibition is Laurie Hogin, who uses monster animals as savagely satiric devices. Monster monkeys mimic us as we buy into image. They show us how completely ridiculous and repulsive we are. Swirling in competition, vicious predator-prey hybrids, anomalies themselves, literally warn us not to trust a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Monsters dwell within everything human and the human experience. Artists use the image of the monster to affect and to resurrect real human emotions, rather than those filtered through the television screen, dulled by overexposure, and simulated by the computer. Artists' fascination with monsters indicates a widespread belief that the world right now is a scary place, and it is just getting scarier. We are so mesmerized by people who get caught cheating (in a chatroom) on their transsexual partners, who claim to have been abducted by aliens, killed by Buffy, or documented by Fox Mulder on X-Files, that we are blind to the real monsters in control of our lives and our futures.

 

About the author

Jennifer Uhrhane is the Curatorial Fellow at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. She is currently working on exhibition projects planned for 2002, including Painting in Boston: 1950-2000 and Two Views of Cuba: Lou Jones and Peter Kayafas, a photography exhibition. Uhrhane is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Museum Studies Certificate Program, where she worked on DEMONSTROSITY, a 2000 exhibition at the Aidekman Arts Center that dealt with subjects related to Terrors and Wonders. Also in 2000, she was the Programming Coordinator for the Convergence International Arts Festival in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A photographer as well, Uhrhane holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and regularly exhibits her artwork.

rev. 7/24/01

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