'Shows like this are imperative to maintaining artistic morale and may haphazardly breed something unexpected.'
Tim Jag's latest curatorial project, Beast! began with a call to artists inciting them to “dive right in to what scares the shit out of you...or what strikes you as the most mysterious weirdness you can think of...” A month before Halloween, the show opened at Jamie Hart’s PHIL Space to a packed and celebratory crowd for a spirited, two-week group show that included works by twenty-nine local artists. Predominantly drawings and sculpture in various media, the latter most successfully enlivened the theme with bold, sometimes outrageous displays.
The theme began, Jag said, by thinking about “primal fear and how we are not exactly at the top of the food chain.” Beast! is a metaphor for what eats us alive, the “other,” something scary, mysterious, and even legendary. Jag notes that forty thousand years ago we drew cave paintings that showed animals as enigmatic totems. Today there are monsters, vampires, ghosts, aliens, and loads more over which to get flustered and to venerate. Of course, beasts that live up to their mythic reputation as dark, animalistic, sinister, or even grotesque beings are rarely seen in the light of day.
Michael Lujan’s Colmillo Citricos anthropomorphizes a piece of fruit. The brown (possibly decomposing) lump sits at the top of a stick—spherical and dried with rough skin and a brittle stem poking up from its crown. Midway down is a set of five human-like teeth, which are rumored to be real. They’re pearled, a little yellow, and charmingly crooked. Sheltered by a glass dome, Lujan’s little rotting lemon becomes a specimen. It’s the mouth of a monster but its goofy overbite suggests one out of Shrek. Right next to Lujan’s sculpture are two sheets of paper hung low to the floor, each with two large black paw prints: Gen Hayashida’s ink-on-paper A Beast. The prints, which iterate the tracks of an incredibly large missing animal, might’ve been more effective if inked directly on the wall. Hayashida spoils the illusion by also displaying the source of her prints: two hand-carved wooden block stamps.
El Dentista’s Beast Teeth, presumably found objects, are each the size of a human head and hang on the wall by simple black supports that cite each conjectured beast and its location. Unknown Beast #513a, Canine is from Koldass Cave, Russia. The Godzilla Molar is from Tokyo, Japan, and the most ridiculous, This Ain’t Your Mamma’s Yeti is from our own Jemez, NM. Other than the species names, Beast Teeth gives little away. There’s a brown ang, a yellowed boulder, and an ivory three-pronged tooth. The surfaces are rough and uneven, beaten and weathered by time and ferocious eating. El Dentista lovingly crafted these remnants from papier-mâché and paint, playfully reimagining the top of the food chain as humorous remnants of mysterious beasts.
Two other artists explored “beast” via sexuality, their work teetering on the grotesque. David Solomon’s piece, Even Nice People Die From Cancer, is the artist’s cast fist in flesh tones, veins slightly popping, with thumb peaking from between the forefinger and middle finger. Bubbles left from the mold linger on the surface like tiny craters and suggest something rupturing from within. Its companion on the left is a donut preserved by a coating of resin, a very shiny glaze that left a single long drip hanging from the bottom like bodily fluid. Even Nice People Die From Cancer provokes tantalizing, albeit perplexing, imagery of third base. The title suggests something rotting away beneath a really nice surface, nothing if not a metaphorical beast.
Zelda Salazar’s Hexen is ostentatious, with three mannequins standing in a sea of red fabric before a backdrop of crushed black velvet. There’s something demonic in that alone, but each woman—a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette—wears a red-and-black leather bodice from which hangs a black strap-on. They cluster together like the three fates with their black ski masks, fishnet thigh highs, and police riot shields that say “Hexen Lieben Langer” (“witches love more”). Annoyingly squeaky clean, the plastic bodies appear fresh with outfits shiny and unused. Nothing looks debased, which is actually disappointing despite Salazar’s bringing the bestial underbelly of commercial fantasy into plain view.
The scariest piece in the show is Lauren Oliver’s Minizuku Space Samurai, a nearly seven-foot-high ink-on-paper drawing of an armless Cyclops with pointy ears and fishtail. Oliver’s scratchy, thin black lines feel unstable and radiate off the entity in waves, making this larger than life effigy vibrate with energy. Its uncanny resemblance to a stuffed animal feels familiar and comforting, while its owl-like features evoke darkness.
Beast! presents the perfect theme with which to transgress boundaries and cast a net outside of the hermeneutic circle. More than anything, Jag’s project was an excuse for artists to make and show work outside of the rhetoric of a mainstream gallery and to have fun doing so. Shows like this are imperative to maintaining artistic morale and may haphazardly breed something unexpected. After all, the periphery is where the monsters hide.