At first look, Kate Clark’s discomfiting human-animal hybrids and Andrea Dezsö’s intricate drawings and paper objects, now on view in a dual exhibition at the Newcomb Art Museum, couldn’t be further in spirit from the acclaimed early 20th-century pottery with which Newcomb is still associated.
But according to NAM director Monica Ramirez-Montagut, who curated the show, Clark’s and Dezsö’s work can be viewed as following in the footsteps of Newcomb’s artistic tradition.
“These paired exhibitions honor the spirit of the women who participated in the Newcomb artistic enterprise by revisiting traditional crafts in new and unexpected ways for the 21st century,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “The shows present often unsettling hybridized figures that encourage and challenge the viewer’s willingness to accept difference.”
That artistic hybridization is most immediately evident in the work of New York-based artist Kate Clark, whose work perfectly expresses both the art and craft of taxidermy. Her eerily expressive human-faced creatures look less like stitched-together escapees from the island of Dr. Moreau than beings that have been engineered from human and animal components on a genetic level.
Clark says artist Louise Bourgeois, herself no stranger to challenging art, once took her to task for creating sculpture that Bourgeois thought was “too morbid” — which should give you some idea of just how unnerving some people find Clark’s work.
“I actually thought she might connect with my work, but I guess not.” Clark said.
Perhaps Bourgeois was put off by the uncanny nature of Clark’s art. In robotics, the term “uncanny valley” is used to describe the phenomenon where humans become attracted to, and then strongly repelled by humanoid robots the more “realistic” the robots become. More broadly speaking, it describes that slightly queasy feeling we get when confronted with something that appears to be real, but remains indefinably “off” somehow.
Clark’s startlingly animate hybrid beings approach that uncanny valley about as closely as you can imagine. The visible rips and nails in the animal hides Clark uses are intentional imperfections that both call attention to the artifice of the work and yet somehow make her creatures even more “realistic.” Like Bourgeois, you might find the results disturbing — but they’re unquestionably fascinating.
By contrast, Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö’s intricately detailed drawings, pop-up books, and three dimensional paper pieces aren’t quite as disquieting — at least on the surface.
Two site specific pieces by Dezsö built into a wall in one gallery reference Carnival art and craft: specifically, the float designs for the 1892 Krewe of Proteus parade attributed to artist Carlotta Bonnecaze, who is cited as the first female Carnival parade float designer.
“The watercolors of the Proteus Krewe’s historic Mardi Gras float and costume designs — depicting the plant kingdom with people dressed as mushrooms or strawberries about to be attacked by monstrous giant insects — resonated deeply with my interest in creating and inhabiting imaginary worlds,” said Dezsö.
Those imaginary worlds constitute multilayered vignettes of winged forms and fantastical vegetation, internally lit by multicolored lights. They’re like designs for a magical Mardi Gras ball of the future.
In another gallery, a collection of Dezsö’s illustrations for an edition of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm underscore the often macabre elements of the stories while still foregrounding their essential narrative simplicity. Another suite of drawings featuring strange underwater denizens of Dezso’s own devising hover somewhere between dream and nightmare.
A collection of handkerchiefs embroidered with examples of the artist’s mother’s questionable wisdom (“If you inhale the scent of lilies while you sleep, you can die”) is the best example in the show of how Deszö subverts ideals of traditional feminine handicrafts. Competing narratives in a brightly hued pop-up book combine propaganda slogans with Dezsö’s recollections of growing up in a Communist environment. And her deliriously colorful and fantastically detailed drawing “All Beings” is like a nursery mural on acid.
But Dezsö’s meticulous sense of craft is best evidenced by her elaborate “tunnel books” in which layers of Japanese handmade paper are cut and sewn together into collapsible dioramas.
It’s dizzyingly complex work and amply demonstrates how the twin traditions of art and craft at Newcomb are still strong in the 21st century.
John d’Addario writes about art. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org