Beautiful Beast

by Claire Cushman, MFA 2015

“Artists have a limited amount of studio time, so we have to be selective about which shows to see,” says Peter Drake, Academy Dean and curator of Beautiful Beast.
“I envision going to shows as part of an artist’s studio practice – and seeing shows that don’t inspire you is like losing time in the studio. With any show at the Academy, it’s important that the work presented gets people back to their studios wanting to make art.”

During the February 3rd opening of Beautiful Beast, it was clear from guests’ reactions that this show had succeeded in inspiring artists. I overheard more than one guest remark, “This is THE BEST show the Academy’s ever put on.”

Beautiful Beast brings together 16 of the most compelling and influential figurative sculptors of our era. With wildly different visions, materials, and processes, the artists in this show slip back and forth between the beautiful and the grotesque. The works, which range in material from carved wood to stainless steel, foam rubber to video installation, ask audiences to question the meaning of these two paradigms and all that lies between.

During the Opening

Last week, I sat down with Peter Drake to discuss three of the pieces that caught my eye and left ME itching to get back to the studio.

Lesley Dill - "Rush" metal, foil, organza and wire (size?)

Although Beautiful Beast is a sculpture show, Lesley Dill’s 2D wall installation, “Rush was the first piece Drake thought of for the show. “Often sculpture shows can feel monotonous, because there tend to be a lot of works of roughly the same height,” he says.  “This piece, which covers the whole wall, activates the space so that anything happening in the rest of the room becomes part of a spectacle.”

In “Rush” a small metal cutout of a seated figure occupies the left corner of the wall. Hundreds of different cutouts pour forth from his back, overlapping and flowing into one another in a cloud of swirling imagery. Dill grew up in Maine, and says the vastness and grey luminosity of the sea has stayed with her and influenced her work in metal.

Dill sees the small figure as one of us. The work deals with the limitlessness and wonder of the creative impulse, and the need to just get ideas out of one’s system. She based the piece around a Kafka quote:

“The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free to myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I’m here, that is quite clear to me…”

“This figure needs to have this purging experience in order to live and survive,” says Drake. “There’s a rush of cultural activity exploding out of him –Indonesian art, European art, American art, Mexican art – all these different icons of creativity.”

The overall effect of this piece is one of overwhelming beauty combined with frustration and confusion at this cloud of ideas. Just as the viewer can’t parse the imagery out into discrete units, as artists, we often don’t know quite what it is we’re trying to make or say, just that we need to get it out.

Folkert de Jong - "The Piper" 2007, polystyrene, plastic, pigments and adhesive, 80x40x40

In the far corner of Wilkinson Hall stands Folkert de Jong’s “The Piper.”  Its placement in the corner is no accident – with playful, candy colours and an enticing variety of materials, The Piper is incredibly seductive from afar. “It acts as a magnet and pulls people into the space,” Drake says.  

De Jong creates an entire world out of cheap materials such as polyurethane and Styrofoam. “Many of his pieces are anti-war themed,” Drake explains. “He does something that few people can do – he makes very powerful social statements, but you don’t feel like you’re being preached to.”  

The pipers de Jong refers to are the musicians employed to encourage soldiers into battle. “The piper is both musical and beautiful, but for a very destructive purpose,” says Drake. “The head of this sculpture is based on Abraham Lincoln – a strange contradiction, considering that Lincoln was a crusader for peace.”

While this piece immediately draws you in, up close, it’s downright frightening. The range of textures is at once gorgeous and repulsive, with wax that depicts flesh peeling away in some areas. The body is the size of a human form, but the swollen looking head is larger than life, and leans forward toward the viewer. If you stand right in front of the sculpture, you feel as though it might to topple over onto you, invoking a harrowing physical experience.

Monica Cook - "Snowsuit" wax, pigment, fur coats, aqua resin, fiberglass -28x30x40

Monica Cook crafted “Snowsuit” specifically for Beautiful Beast.  It began as a smaller figure, but grew to life size as she worked. “She had in mind the idea of shedding the skin, the rebirth and renewal that you must do in order to grow as a person,” says Drake. “But she was adamant about not leaving the skin behind looking like some discarded thing – she wanted to construct it in a confident posture.”

At first this piece, with its furs and zippers, reminded me of a piece of clothing I might see in a winter couture show. However, after spending some time with it I began to feel a bit sick. Cook incorporated flesh coloured pigment into the resin, which reminds the viewer of human skin. The scale of the piece makes it impossible not to think of our own bodies while viewing the piece, and the large chunks of the legs, arms and torso are cut away to reveal what looks like a layer of viscera and organs. I couldn’t help but think of “Silence of the Lambs” suit made of skin.

Monica Cook was originally thought of as a painter, but has undergone massive transformations as an artist. “She started making sculptures for stop action animation, so she had to learn all these new techniques at the same time,” says Drake. “This piece is about her journey as a creative person – she’s constantly learning and trying on new things, becoming expert at them and moving on.”

While the opening certainly succeeded in inspiring Academy students and viewers alike to get back to the studio and make things, it also provided a fantastic opportunity for the artists in the show to meet each other. “Many of them have had work in shows together or followed one another’s work over the years, but have never met in person,” says Drake. “So there was a really nice energy in bringing them together.”

Beautiful Beast is on view daily in Wilkinson Hall until March 8th, 2015.

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