We often refer to an artist's subject as being "captured" in the work, but this expression has never been more true than in the zoomorphic sculpture of Beth Cavener Stichter. "On Tender Hooks", the artist's new exhibition at NYC's Claire Oliver Gallery, is a menagerie of all-too human struggles in the form of animals pinned or posed on the walls like heavy stoneware butterflies. The creatures seem to be complicit in their own display, some presenting their weaknesses vainly, others piteously.
I attended Cavener Stichter's opening reception last week. Upon entering I was greeted by the example above, "Humiliation By Design," which seems to bemoan the deceptively simple mechanics of impossible situations -- I couldn't help recalling the Waite-Smith deck's Eight of Swords. Just around the corner, however, you'll find the ultimate expression of freedom in the form of "A Rush of Blood to the Head". The centerpiece of the show, this six-foot sculpture stars two (extremely) male goats locked in embrace, their mouths sealed together passionately. I'm very excited to present this conversation with the artist, in which she comments at length upon her strange beasts and the even stranger humans who behold them.
Tom Blunt: You say that these are actually portraits of humans. Can you explain what led you to abandon the human form in favor of animals?
Beth Cavener Stichter: There is a sense of Otherness when you see something that isn't quite normal; when I was doing more human figurative work, I would slightly distort body shapes, and as soon as I did, people would stop identifying with the images. They didn't want to imagine that altered figure as themselves. It didn't take much – even sheer nakedness would become alienating. In order to try to coax people into empathizing with the work, I switched to using the animal form to express the human condition.
People often ask me, "How do you know animal anatomy so well?" and I just chuckle. If you were to see a real goat next to my sculptures, you'd see that something is terribly wrong. These figures are human bodies that have been subtly morphed into other creatures. They have belly-buttons, collarbones, and surgical scars that I bear on my own body. Most of them have human genitalia. A good deal of the time, these details escape immediate notice.
TB: Certain animals recur often in your work, such as rabbits and goats. How do you determine which animal you'll use to capture a particular person or trait?
BCS: It all stems back to when I was a really young -- we moved every two years of my life, all the way up until high school. I was always in different schools, which meant I would always be the outsider, the stranger. In response I developed a defense mechanism in order to classify people into groups, in order to figure out how I fit into that situation -- more subconsciously than consciously. Since I was a child at the time, these categories were defined in terms of animals, because all the picture books I read categorized human behavior this way. You know, the pigs are this human character type, the wolves are this other type. I'm interested now in what that says about the person making the distinctions rather than the animal being personified.
When I was in graduate school I decided to make the shift into using animal forms, but I was worried about doing it because there are so many animals and cultural associations with particular species – how would I establish developed characters if I used a random animal every time? So I chose three distinct animals that would embody three different personality types: the victim, the bully, and the manipulator. At the time I chose the hare, the wild boar, and the goat to represent those three character types. They were way over-simplified, but it was fun to subvert that – how could I make a manipulative victim? Or a bully-manipulator?
TB: We spoke a little about the book Geek Love, which you claimed as one of your favorites. I'm curious about the ways in which your appreciation for horror has manifested in these deceptively sinister sculptures.
BCS: I love to read more than anything else. I've been drawn to horror because of the intense psychological profiles of its characters -- you have to care about them before it's truly horrible to watch what they do. However, my favorite novels aren't horror novels at all, but ones that really get you inside the characters heads, and make you feel and think like another person and really intensely share their experience. I think as a young person growing up, horror novels were an introduction to that kind of character development.
That was a big move in my own work, too. When I first started making work, I felt I had to tell people what to think. If I wanted to, say, talk about a primal element that's hidden inside, I would marry a primal element with an image of a human. The hybrid figures I made early on were all about that. But it was definitely hitting people over the head with a baseball bat: "Here is my message! And I'll even title it for you so that you'll understand it!" It wasn't until I started applying to graduate schools, where you have to write about what it is you're trying to say, that I realized that I was more drawn to things that were subtle and sneaky and sinister in some way. And they're sinister because they're quiet… I'd rather bait my hook with something that's alluring but still has that sharp, pointy jab. You can't just stick a bare hook in the water and expect to catch anything with it.
TB: You described yourself to me as shy. People have incredibly visceral reactions to the sight of animals in peril, so I have to wonder: do you ever become self-conscious about making, presenting, and defending work that you know will incur dramatic emotional reactions?
BCS: Not when I'm making them, ever. But boy do I build up a lot of anxiety standing in front of the work while people have that emotional reaction directed at me. I've had people approach me near tears, or wanting to mother me, or claim an emotional intimacy with me because of something they've felt in the work. I love that they felt that, but I get alarmed when it's directed at me.
TB: You've described your medium (clay) as having placed you in an artistic ghetto, one that is usually considered a means to "craft" or "design" rather than "art." Can you explain the challenge this has posed to you as an artist?
BCS: I'm cautious about framing my work in an environment that's primarily devoted to design. Up until now I've been shown with other clay artists, so sometimes I'm sitting next to pots and functional work -- which is just a weird context in which to say the things I'm trying to say. I love my fellow clay artists, they've been a very supportive and awesome community, but it's been important step in my career to find a gallery that would represent me, not as a material specific artist but as a sculptor.
TB: Do you ever consider switching to a medium that doesn't carry this association?
BCS: I do have an intense preference for this material; clay is so much like flesh. When I'm working with it, it's as close as you can get to molding another person's body. It responds to touch, it remembers your fingers… everything about it is so sensual. Creating a human form (which, again, is essentially what I'm doing) out of any other material would feel like secondary translation. Which is not to say that I won't work with other materials. I love working with metals, for example -- the way that they change over time and react to the environment. But those other media will always be supplementary.
I’m really excited about my new representation with the Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea. I think it’s going to open so many possibilities for the work- both in material, concept, and audience. Showing alongside the kind of talent she has in the gallery, I am more than ready to see how that pushes my work -more risk-taking, experimentation with materials, and a new way of looking at the way that my pieces interact with a specific audience. I am ready to travel into those dark places in my head that I have been afraid to enter- I both excited and nervous to see what the next 5 years will bring.
TB: Seeing [the work] in person at the Claire Oliver Gallery, it really struck me that while "A Rush of Blood to the Head" is obviously an earnest expression of sexuality, it is foremost an earnest expression of love. And I think that's what seems to win people over -- it's shocking at first, but the longer you look at it, the less dirty it seems. Does this mesh with your hopes for the piece? Do the reactions to "Rush of Blood" seem different than the reactions to other pieces in the show?
BCS: Quite a few of the works in the exhibition deal with some of my own personal struggles in my career as an artist as well as the personal and autobiographical stories. The smaller works in particular seem to provoke a distanced or thoughtful reaction from the viewer rather than evoke a moment of intimacy. The three larger works are meant to engage this more visceral sense of empathy- using both human scale, gesture, and an indirect gaze to seduce the viewer into a sympathetic state. As a group, the medium and smaller pieces in the show return the gaze of the viewer, addressing the frame of the space and the context of the encounter in a confrontational manner. These emotional states require another's presence on which to focus their attention. Conversely, all three of the larger works are locked in private inward moments.
"A Rush of Blood to the Head" is the centerpiece of the entire exhibition, because more than any of the other pieces, the sculpture of the two kissing goats deals with something that is profoundly human. The kiss is specifically a gesture of human intimacy. The passion and tenderness of the embrace is likely to provoke a sentimental response, despite the fact that is completely unnatural for two animals to display affection with their mouths in a kiss. When you are just looking at the upper half of the goats, you are dealing with issues of human intimacy and passion that are identifiable by almost anyone. But then we come back to that initial reaction - why does viewing the sculpture in its entirety so often change the viewer’s reaction? When you are viewing the sculpture as a whole, it addresses a complex and controversial social issue which everyone is familiar with. My goal was to make this piece as alluring and passionate as possible, so that there’s always an element that calls to people to remain engaged despite any uncomfortable feelings with its sexuality.
The initial impulse for creating these sculptures is the struggle to overcome my own assumptions about the thoughts, motivations, and feelings contained beneath the surface of the people around me. I am often tangled in a mess of frustration with my own limited experiences, inhibitions, fears, and prejudices that create a barrier between understanding and communicating with the people around me - whether they be strangers or my closest acquaintances.
What really drives the work is the attempt to lure others into confronting these same issues. This is the main reason that I shifted from using the human form to the animal figure. In my experience, I found that most people empathized more readily with animals than humans. There is an assumed moral and emotional innocence that we associate with the animal image which allows me to delve into territory which we normally find too uncomfortable to dwell on. I want to create images that address some tough questions, while at the same time addressing why we find these questions uncomfortable.
Photograph © Beth Cavener Stichter 2009