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'Jokes of Nature' Walks a Fine Line Between Grotesque and Gorgeous

Does Mother Nature have a sense of humor? Judging by RedLine’s current exhibition, she sure does.

In the strange new world of environmental pollution, permeating radiation, and genetic experimentation—where square tomatoes, and cloned sheep are commonplace—it follows that imaginative visual artists would embrace a surreal, dark, and even absurdist zeitgeist. Simply put, as the apocalypse draws nigh, work that could be considered outlandish, uncomfortable, and even grotesque in both style and substance increasingly speaks to our current cultural situation.

In that spirit, the group show Jokes of Nature examines the connotations and manifestations of the grotesque as a contemporary aesthetic and societal expression of irony, fantasy, fear, and fascination. Co-curated by artist Donald Fodness and Northern Renaissance scholar Geoffrey Shamos, this playful and dire survey presents the work of some 30 local and national artists, including well-known practitioners and emerging voices, in an array of mediums from painting to sculpture, assemblage, and digital media.

Matthew Harris: Untitled. Fired ceramic and latex paint

Nowadays, we tend to accept the word grotesque as a pejorative—but it was not always this way. In its earliest usage, dating back to Greco-Roman times, it referred to popular styles of art, architecture, and decor that simply distorted or hybridized human, plant, and animal figures into motifs and images that were exaggeratedly funny, ugly, or outright bizarre. In those heady times of magic and myths, dragons, and mermaids, this was not so strange. Far from an abomination or affront against the natural, the eccentricity of the grotesque was once considered beautiful. Today’s visual culture seems to have rediscovered this sensibility, and not only in terms of how contemporary art might look, but at a deeper level, also how it is made or what it can mean.

Reflecting the spectrum of this trend, in Jokes of Nature we see Paul McCarthy, a veritable patron saint of visceral horror, whose pioneering work in sculpture and performance freaked out a whole generation, and Louise Bourgeois, whose ominous and sexualized feminist images and objects disrupted the whole narrative of polite modernism in the 20th century.

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Miracle Machine #23 or The Humanity Hut. Mixed media on paper

Trenton Doyle Hancock, who is known for filtering his personal and political experience as an African-American man through a generational prism of toys, pulp, punk, Pop, and outsider art, shows alongside one of his greatest influences—Peter Saul, the punkiest octogenarian around, who only gets more iconoclastic with age and whose groundbreaking, boundary-smashing, politically incisive work did for painting what McCarthy did for performance and sculpture.

Carlee Fernandez: Rat With Grapes. Altered Taxidermy Plastic Fruit

Carlee Fernandez has long been interested in the perverse and alluring relationship between man and the animal kingdom, and isn’t afraid to use taxidermy to make a point. Along with Matthew Harris, whose use of distressed clay speaks to the malleability and entropy of the human form, Fernandez is among the assembled artists who most deftly use both disgust and humor, attraction and repulsion, in equal measure. Meanwhile, Carla Gannis reaches back into art history, directly referencing Hieronymous Bosch’s 1505 masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights in her elaborate digital technicolor reimagining of art’s most famous cautionary tale—except with emojis instead of demons. That sounds right.

Laura Shill: Wallpaper Proposal. Digital Collage

Xi Zhang: MVM #88. Acrylic on paper

Carla Gannis: Garden of Emoji Delights. Gif.

Jokes of Nature is at RedLine in Denver through October 25, 2015.

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