Visual Arts

Beast in Show

Humanity's not looking so good these days. With war overseas, terrorism pushing our borders and serial killers in our midst, maintaining much faith in my fellow human beings proves to be a constant struggle.

What does it mean to be human? What separates us from beast? If you need some visual supplements to promote those think-too-hard-and-your-head-will-explode questions, there's a place for you to go.

With a show title like "neither MAN nor BEAST," I was ready for a world of disgusting anthropomorphic creatures, soulless ghouls, and other horrible images at Mesa Contemporary Arts, the gallery at Mesa Arts Center. What I found, rather, was a study of humanity that embraces the blurry line that supposedly separates us from beast. MCA delivered — it's a successful show.

"neither MAN nor BEAST" is an authentic study of living creatures. The relationships we have with one another, the ideas we hold, and the horrific fears we experience are mutated with primal desires and instinctual urges. With works by 16 different artists, a mix of local, national and international, curator Carolyn Zarr reached into the gallery's infant permanent collection of only 200 pieces and made thoughtful and disciplined selections — for the most part. The pieces worked together to range the theme from cuddly and endearing to broken and revolting. And I like that — it's human.

The most eye-catching of the works is Daniel Martin Diaz's Spirit Sanctus. This lithograph has the aesthetic of an early Christian text, but was made in 2003. The creature depicted has a crowned human head, a butterfly body, and a tail made of a skeletal spine ending with a claw or stinger. The notched hatching along the eyebrows is surgical and hideous. This is a hellish creature with impassive eyes, six of them — two on the head and four in the wings.

The work explores the horror of an all-seeing God; the eerie imagery is paired with beautiful calligraphy that scrawls the Ave Maria prayer. It's no surprise that Diaz was raised in a traditional Mexican Catholic family. In a supplemental handout, Diaz explains, "The fact that many of those beliefs seemed to render no logical explanation has also influenced me. These unanswered questions find a home in my work." Having attended Catholic school myself, the work reminded me of the fears associated with a child's literal understanding of theology. The image shows humanity's tendency to create ritual and belief that can often result in sadistic self-injury.

Another stomach-turner is Susan Peterson's Biological Experiment. The puppet-like creature has a head, torso, and limbs, and is upright like a human. One foot is a fish, the other a lobster claw, and its whole face is engulfed by a pointed beak. This figure is taken from the artist's narrative Ecological Disaster Series that includes a toxic world of mutated creatures, struggling to survive in a hostile post-apocalyptic world. It is a being that has become a monster in order to survive — one of our darkest traits.

Thankfully, not all the works were so morbid (after a couple of these, it's time for a break). Take, for instance, Me and My Compadre, a lithograph by Gilbert "Magu" Lujan. Here, in a fluorescent palette, a cartoon man poses with his dog. With their arms around each other, the image looks like a snapshot at a backyard barbecue. With the dog wearing human clothes and standing upright, I chuckled. While the piece may be predictable for the theme, it's goofy and sentimental — a nice way to lighten up the show.

My favorite piece is a small bronze and acrylic sculpture, about the size of a chicken egg, by John Tuomisto-Bell. Its highly glazed surface is jade, rust and flesh coming together to make a corpse-like head. The eyes, nostrils, and mouth are articulated with carved holes and notches — embodying a void. Part of a series, this dead little face acts as a blank canvas, its expressionless and simplified features allowing the viewer to project any identity. When I stared into those cavernous eye sockets, I wanted to take it home and set it on my desk so I could look into it every day — somehow, it would keep me humble.

This show was almost perfect in terms of choosing works that maintain a fluid coherence to the theme. Although, when I picked up a handout provided by the MCA, it made me question some of the selections. Typically, I embrace supplemental information. Anything to help me sort out this crazy crap on the walls is greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, here, I was thrown off course a bit, and I think one work in particular could've been edited out.

In a spotlight, against the white museum wall, a stringed doll hangs, head slumped against the shoulder of her nude body. She looks human. But she's chopped to pieces and her body parts are barely held together — they could easily snap apart. And then what would be left? A fleshy thigh or torso . . . she is meat.

Unfortunately, my reading of the work (as it relates to the theme) is far from how Anna Sheffield, the artist, explains it in the handout. Titled Sticks and Stones, she says that "its strings and bones represent those things we tie to ourselves: dreams, fixations, ambitions, possessions and our own tales and histories." Her explanation is downright sunny in comparison to my carnivorous reading.

So what happened here? Did I read the work in such a vile way because I was swayed by the title of the show, or did Sheffield fail in visually conveying her peaceful message? In any case, the intention of the piece doesn't match the theme. Particularly with the other pieces working so well, this one could have been left in the back room.

Regardless, the MCA's impeccable timing harmonizes with the rather dark atmosphere we've been experiencing lately. And while I may not be closer to answering any of my Philosophy 101 questions, at least I know I'm not the only one with such concerns.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi