Visual Arts

"Sue Chenoweth: Predator and Prey" Takes No Prisoners at Bragg's Pie Factory

There's a fine line between hunter and prey. Though nature clearly assigns roles within the food chain, one small change in the status quo and Fluffy the Rottweiler may take a chunk out of his owner, or a trained wildlife expert gets a stingray barb through the heart. These changing roles, as seen in real-life animal attacks, are the inspiration behind Sue Chenoweth's "Predator and Prey," on display through March 8 at Bragg's Pie Factory in downtown Phoenix.

Aesthetically, I'd rank Chenoweth's mixed-media works as some of the most unappealing I've seen. I was set to rip the show to shreds 30 seconds after entering the gallery. But, like the scrawny, unattractive geek who gets chicks because he's got fabulous pheromones, "Predator and Prey" has a bizarre animal magnetism (no pun intended) that drew me in. Chenoweth sets a devious trap for the viewer: Take a casual look and you'll walk away unharmed; but examine the dark, soul-sucking depths of each painting and you'll become the prey, trapped inside the real-life tragedies they depict.

Take, for example, Timothy Treadwell (2007). Cut paper triangles form mountains at the base, while brown and blue peanut shapes provide a serene, earthy canvas for a gruesome series of ominous, almost finger-painted washes of pink and crimson. Even without explanation, the piece evokes a feeling of dread. Knowing about the gruesome mauling of the noted bear enthusiast and environmentalist at the hands of a grizzly only magnifies its impact.

In contrast, the earlier Upper Lake Kaflia (2006), one of several images that also appeared in the 2006 show "DeNatured" at the Icehouse, is more controlled. The circles and dashes are purposeful, abstractly re-creating a map of the Treadwell site. In the three-year journey from those original pieces to "Predator and Prey," Chenoweth has developed a stronger identification with both hunter and prey, immersing herself in the dangerous worlds of stormy sea, unpopulated jungle, and insane asylum. The result is that her images have become increasingly disturbing and emotionally moving.

One common criticism of Chenoweth's style is that it's "obtuse" — not a bad descriptor, considering the near impossibility of gauging her inspiration from a series of dashes, blobs, and frantic brush strokes. Including exhibition labels with brief descriptions of real animal attacks was a smart move for the gallery, as was the catalog essay by fellow New Times art critic Kathleen Vanesian, which will be available for the official opening on February 20. Without them, I might have valued her work on aesthetics alone, and that's shaky territory. With the added explanation, Chenoweth ensures viewers won't get mired in the thick layers of her abstract storytelling.

In The Ramming of the Whale Ship Essex (2007), Chenoweth shows how easily predator can become prey. Little is seen of the whaling vessel except violent strokes and slashes of color, funneling toward the gullet of a black-and-white beast. The piece is filled with the same hopeless irony I imagine Captain Ahab felt at being devoured by the object of his obsession. Darker still is Pollard and Ramsdell on the 94th Day, February 23, 1821 (2007), an allusion to two of the Essex survivors who were forced to eat the corpses of their crewmates. Chenoweth's abstract style is welcome here, as a more figurative representation of the event would likely have me hurling over the edge of sanity — or just hurling. A curvilinear brown shape serves as a rudimentary ship. The two bent figures inside capture the inhumanity of the two men, barely recognizable, adrift on a seemingly endless black sea, their survival marked with blood.

With the tension and cacophony of the random elements in her work, an observer "trapped" by the horrific images might literally end up in the nuthouse. How ironic it is, then, that the last works in Chenoweth's show feature 19th-century asylums. The most personal of these architectural images is Bedlam (2008), in which cartoon character Piggy Hamhock is strapped to a chair and force-fed curative tonics in eye-popping shades of neon orange and green. That scene, taken from a 1937 Merrie Melodies cartoon, understandably haunted Chenoweth as a child. It's the stuff of nightmares, and she successfully conveys the visceral reaction of dread at the thought of being tortured in the name of sanity.

In this series, based on historian Carla Yanni's The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, Chenoweth clearly portrays patients as innocent victims. Unlike Treadwell or Essex, in which the subjects' hubris could've led to their downfalls, à la Moby-Dick, these inmates are at the mercy of a system that imprisoned anyone deemed abnormal.

The show is a visual train wreck. Chenoweth's art assails the senses to the point that you want to look away from the eye-searing colors and grotesque, bloody shapes. But you just can't. And the artist has complete power over the audience. She is the predator, and the audience is the prey, struggling to escape from the emotional hold her works have on the viewer. Like the real-life heroes (or are they fools?) she portrays, no one who falls into her trap escapes unscathed. Even me.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden