Though we inhabit a world of computer screens and high rises, there remains a buried memory, a recollection of something in all of us that connects to the past.
That premise forms the center of “Mysterious Presence,” Kate Clark’s solo sculpture installation on view at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette. And whether you label it sanctified or subversive, political or disconcerting, it’s all fine with the Clark.
“It’s a lot of fun to be at openings,” says the Brooklyn artist. “There’s so much curiosity. I have people who love the work because it changes the conversation.”
That Clark alters the conversation is a bit of an understatement. Her hybridized crosses between human and animal have a powerful presence reminiscent of Native American folklore — shape-shifters, such as Deer Woman.
There is also a message.
According to Clark, “although we are of enlightened existence, we are of wild origin.”
In this sense, her “Galant” and “Fortitude” are a bridge to something more primal, and their gaze looks just beyond you in distant recognition instead of confrontation.
Although Clark portrays animals as both prey and predator, she’s careful that the former doesn’t look vulnerable.
“I’ve worked hard to make the gaze confident and calm,” says Clark, who doesn’t push spiritual views, but merely suggests them. “I have to be careful not to tell people how to think about the work.”
The artist has discovered it doesn’t necessarily work both ways.
“About 1,000 people took care to write and tell me how they disapproved. I read every one,” she says with a laugh.
She encourages multiple readings of her work and likes the way it holds people for a few moments.
“You want people to relate,” she says. “It’s cool they thought that way. It’s hard to get people to look at artwork for a long time.”
Clearly National Geographic approved and made her the subject of a short documentary, as did Kanye West, for whom Clark created a mask for his “Panda” video, reversing her usual process and putting her first animal mask on a human.
During her second year of graduate school, Clark was already using other natural materials when she first conceptualized what would become her main body of work.
“It wasn’t because I loved taxidermy,” she says. “It was very experimental, for animals to evolve to have communicative faces took a lot of experimenting. It completely changed from the scientific to a human relationship.”
Completely self-taught, Clark has never taken a taxidermy class and is the first to admit she’s not a taxidermist. While a taxidermist undertakes to recreate exactly how an animal looks in nature, Clark takes some artistic license, making slight changes for aesthetic reasons. She uses a traditional approach with the hides, but the face is sculpted freehand with a live model for reference. Each of her pieces takes two to three months during which the face is stitched together with cotton thread and embellished with dressmaker pins and paint. She completes all aspects of the sculptures herself.
While one can’t claim no animals are harmed in the making of the art, they weren’t harmed by Clark, who upcycles what taxidermists and hunters don’t want. People offer her hides, and she frequently accepts those with blemishes unsuitable for trophy mounts.
“If I get a hide with no damage, I worry,” she says.
Her work is renowned internationally and a favorite of corporate collections.
After a dozen years, Clark remains in the process.
“Because I’m self-taught, each step is important, every animal brings different challenges,” she says. “It’s my strongest voice. I find myself coming back to it.”