A new frontier has been created at Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel. In both the lobby level and second floor galleries, contemporary artists have represented a world in which nature has both run amok and made perfect, symbiotic, evolutionary sense of our post-post-modern, trans-everything world.
In this mesmerizing exhibition curated by 21c curator Alice Gray Stites, fairy tale landscapes and evocative digital mashups beg for closer examination. A surreal forest is presented wherein trees reveal human lungs and spines in their trunks, a woman stands knee deep in a pool of water filled with dead bees while carrying a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and a lake just past the brambles appears to be more blood than water. Just outside the forest, children have horns, chickens have fur, and wild beasts roam in desolate, burned out tableaux.
Stites writes that Hybridity: The New Frontier “explores the environmental, economic, and technological conditions shaping the earth and its inhabitants today. In these still and moving images of land and cityscapes, and in the taxidermy and fabricated figures of The New Frontier, nature meets technoculture, and the new natural is both organic and manufactured.”
Australian Patricia Piccinini’s Surrogate (for the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat) is an ugly, if adorable, sculptural creature. It is the first piece you are likely to encounter in the 21c lobby and, like most of the work in Hybridity, it demands a double-take. Is it part of the store? A new strange version of the ubiquitous penguin? Is it cute? Is it horrible? Piccinini explores the results of environmental change, genetic change, climate change and human behavior in her work. She explains “There is no question that there will be undesired outcomes; my interest is in whether we will be able to love them.”
Russian photographer Oleg Dou also enjoys toying with the line between what is beautiful and what is repulsive; what is animate and inanimate. His chromogenic prints Rabbit and Fawn of somber, big-eyed children with horns and ears appear to be photographic artifacts from the future. American photographer Elena Dorfman explores the blurred line between a near-dead landscape and our attempts to revive it with our human presence. Whether digitally imposing graffiti in a quarry or a luxury tennis court in a scorched valley, her Empire Falling series (also shown at Phyllis Weston Gallery in 2013) shows a world that is flatlining fast.
Luis Gispert is another American photographer who illustrates our human hand in the callous neglect of our natural world. His Chanel Jetty makes a hybrid brand of luxury, consumer logos in a futuristic ATV that sits driverless at the edge of the world. Dean Byington’s Omphalos unearths an amphitheater of lost societies’ architecture and beauty in extraordinary detail in oil on linen.
American Anthony Goicolea anthropomorphizes nature in three works from his Pathetic Fallacy series in which trees have lungs and grow bones and lungs. One is shown under glass, as though a specimen, and the result in all is entirely, visually plausible. Why wouldn’t a tree breathe with human bronchi? After wandering through the first floor forest, every other work of art is suspect. What is hiding in that branch? Is there a human face or a bone? In Chris Doyle’s (American) The Larger Illusion, a gnarled tree trunk reveals a minotaur’s head.
If the first floor is the forest, the second floor gallery is the sky, where birds are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Marcus Coate’s (British) Dawn Chorus video installation intrigued me more when it was background music to his Ritual for Reconciliation series of crumpled photographs of exquisite birds and other animals. That same day I had read that solar flares were interrupting the ability for a homing pigeon to navigate home. Hearing Coates’ bird/human chorus, while looking at such natural beauty laid waste, while considering wayward pigeons was a punch in the gut.
In the same gallery, two mixed media on canvas works from Grant Hayunga’s (American) Red Peyote Series, Gabriel’s Spell and Raven Headed, are the result of his visions on a Shamanic, peyote-fueled journey. They are raw and visceral, showing man’s twisted discomfort as he becomes mythological beast.
It was a relief then to spend time with Laura Ball’s (American) twisty, seductive watercolors. There is more whimsy than worry in her fantastical evolution and brings a light touch to darker notions of hybridization.
The beauty of Hybridity is two-fold. These are exquisitely crafted works, across media. While the wall text becomes a bit esoteric at times, the works are accessible and plausible, akin to the best moments of magic realism in literature. Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s “A Tree Within” came to mind as similarly successful in not only making the fantastical real but also in seducing us into the surreal with such ease and confidence.
A tree grew inside my head.
A tree grew in.
Its roots are veins,
its branches nerves,
thoughts its tangled foliage.
Your glance sets it on fire,
and its fruits of shade
are blood oranges
and pomegranates of flame.
in the body’s night.
There, within, inside my head,
the tree speaks.
Come closer — can you hear it?