Wednesday, June 4, 2008

el monstro

"Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices." –Oscar Wilde

The recent flap over at jaxcal has got me thinking. Not about monster art per se, but about the grotesque/monstrous/malformed in a historical context.

Art historically, the term grotesque originally referred to the various decorative arabesques, interlaced garlands, and fantastic animal figures discovered in ancient Roman ruins in the 15th century. Later, the word was used to describe the forms often found on/in Gothic churches, and in contemporary parlance, the word is understood to mean the strange, fantastic, ugly or bizarre.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes grotesque as: (n) 1561, a. A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers. b. A work of art in this style. Chiefly pl., figures or designs in grotesque; in popular language, figures or designs characterized by comic distortion or exaggeration. The Italian form grottesco (pl. grotteschi) is sometimes used.

Monster as: (n) 1375, Originally: a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening. The centaur, sphinx, and minotaur are examples of ‘monsters’ encountered by various mythical heroes; the griffin, wyvern, etc., are later heraldic forms.

The use of fantastical forms has a long and storied history in art. Hieronymus Bosch famously used twisted and disfigured forms to illustrate the innate evil in man. Odilon Redon used the monstrous and grotesque in his work to “place us [the viewer], as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.” While closer to home, the artist John Casey (a.k.a. Bunnywax) says “…the physical malformations my characters have are the result of biomorphology. My theory is if one could distort one's body based on one's emotion or psychological state, what would that look like? What if the body formed strange huge club-like limbs or a floating head on it's own, without the control of the owner? Whether the figure is in control of that morphing, I'm not one hundred percent sure. I think it varies from work to work.”

And when the word “monster” is applied to his work: “I'm actually okay with the word if it is used in the complex sense of the concept as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a being who is ostracized from society but a being who also has complex emotions and a desire to belong, to be loved. The more simplistic idea of the monster being evil is what I reject. There is no such thing as pure evil.”

However, I might float the opinion that this contemporary work is a cultural reaction: these artists might be attempting to synthesize the increasingly extreme and horror-filled world we live in with the creation of literal monsters?

Then there is our shared (mostly) Judeo-Christian heritage that has a huge history of monsters, from the Biblical Leviathan to the Devil himself (based, we now know, on the Roman/Greek god Pan). Whether or not these devils, deities, and monsters were based purely in the imagination, or on objects discovered by ancient people (like dinosaur’s bones), they are ingrained in our psyche, even if they only make a fleeting appearance as the thing that goes bump in the night.

Are these a cultural manifestation a la Carl Jung? Shared terror that gets denuded with a “cute,” perspective? I.e. if we draw them, then they cannot harm us?

Or is it something simpler? A use of humor, whimsy, and imagination to create visual contradictions that are at once sympathetic and provocative. A break from the maxim to create art about “real” issues like poverty, war, and famine. Categories so broad as to be rendered virtually meaningless by non-specificity.


B.Gray said...

I love this Madeline. Very interesting where the origins of the words come from and how they still aply to what we do to this date. Good stuff!

Byron said...

Well Bravo Madeleine. Flap. Funny.

It's interesting you use John Casey's work as an example as he's a buddy of mine and I curated a show with his work.

The difference between what you are speaking of in John's work and the examples you use is there is an awareness in his work that is not in the "monster artists" work that I am lumping into this category.

If there was they could back it up with a simple statement of why they are doing it. Instead they generally react in a defensive manner and claim freedom of speech and list a slew of other artists engaged in this type of work.

I would never put John's work in this category.

If the artist could defend their work as it being a cultural reaction that you speak of I would embrace it.

You ask great questions. Questions that generally they can't answer but can defend with style, fashion, and a sense of it being the cool thing to do.

kelly said...

I enjoyed reading this.

With the nod to Shelley's Frankenstein, I'd like to add that the novel was also about man usurping God's role as Creator. Interference with the natural. That Victorian fear still is relevant today, I'd say more than ever, because the proof is out there that humans have interfered severely in natural matters. From pollution to hybridization, the whole notion of "climate-controlled"--there may be, even if unconscious in the Monster Art (movement? trend?), a kind of autophobia? I completely made that word up, but the fear of ourselves, of what we've done, of what will happen next, could be a subtle driving factor. We create monsters, therefore we are monsters, therefore we create Monsters.

madeleine said...

So what you are saying is that until an artist can back up their work with a thesis on why they are doing something, the work isn’t valid?

I’d say that is a pretty poor argument: inarticulateness is not a reason to wholesale-ly write off an entire movement/scene/genre. One might find fault with your artistic premise based on the fact that with the deer-headed soldiers, instead of taking a historical overview of the symbolism of deer in art and literature, and thereby having a more solid foundation from which to operate, you said (briefly quoted) “When asking several artists and designers why they decided to use the deer imagery there seemed to be no apparent reason.” And so you began an investigation. However, I know when I start looking into something, the library is one of the first places I start.

But enough about deer; I’d argue that perhaps, that inability to verbalize a reason(s) combined with the drive artists experience to keep making these sorts of “:monster” things might just speak to a more authentic artistic experience. Now, this is not applause across the board for every single artist who chooses to use the grotesque and malformed in their work, but instead a thought that an artist not understanding their own compulsions is not reason enough for others to discount that work. In fact, the drive to create it might be justification enough.

Discount the work on the grounds that the aesthetic does not appeal to you, that perhaps the sentiment is trite, on a million other reasons, but because the artist can’t/chooses not to write an accompanying essay is shortsighted and boorishly elitist. (Also, James Green made several salient point on your argument’s behalf, why can’t I do the same for the so-called “monster artists”?)

As to John Casey’s work, that brings up an interesting point: how do you define “monster art”? His work certainly looks monstrous to me.

You also mention: “style, fashion, and a sense of “coolness,” I’d argue that more and more art is being integrated into life. While that certainly forces artists to up their game and rethink traditional forms of expression, that’s not really a bad thing. Or is it?

Incidentally, I was chatting with a friend last night who made what I think might be the ultimate point: some artists paint monsters as a way to escape. Not everyone feels an overarching need to confront reality. That might be the crux of it.

madeleine said...

Kelly, your post reinds me of Nietzche’s quote:

"Be careful, lest in fighting the dragon you become the dragon."

And I think in our increasingly stratified times, that is important to remember. Personally, I know that I am often in danger of becoming the dragon...

Clay said...

awesome post! and even better response!

steph said...

and now, a comment from a non-art theorist person, but someone who enjoys art nonetheless: i love this type of work. i had the opportunity to see da vinci's sketches of grotesque figures at the met and they blew me away. i think ever since then, i have been in a weird love with grotesque, monster art. it's beautiful in a haunting way.

B.Gray said... never cease to amaze me with your well thought out messages. Brilliant.

Ojalanpoika said...

Was this the Elder Wand you saught:

Dinotopia is not a fiction. Dinoglyfs and dinolits are not only literally described but even carved, hewn and painted all over the continents by the paleolithic man and even by the man of antiquities.

E.g. Beowulf is the oldest book written in the archaic English that still survives. Guess what? Its main figure is yet another dragon slayer, this time from our Nordic countries.

Dinoglyfs they are. Ever read the book of Job? That's Leviathan & Behemot, folks. The longest description of any animals in the whole Jewish Grammata. Besides the flying reptiles of as late a figure as Isaiah - the flying snakes were described also by the Greek father of history, Herodotos.

In Mosaic law of the Old Testament of Judaism and Christianity, there was also one species classified as both bird and a reptile:
Qetzalcoatl=tinshemet=liskolintu=Archaeopteryx=’old feather' ?

Recovering from hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of the brain,
evolutionary critic
Biochemist, drop-out
(MSci-Master of Sciing)
Helsinki, Finland