Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cryptozoology Exhibit: Mysterious & Kooky

Tristan and I decided it was high time we went to see the recently opened Cryptozoology exhibit at the Bates College Museum of Art up in Lewiston, and seized our opportunity on July 8th, a fine Saturday. The drive went quickly, and after realizing that the "parking lot" for the museum is end-in parking along the main drive (and not a stand-alone "lot"), we installed the car in our choice of parking spots (there was zero competition) and strolled into the quiet brick building that heads the Bates campus on the Russell Street side.

We found the gallery space transformed into a cornucopia of luscious art of many sizes and types, each piece some variation on the theme of cryptozoology produced by artists enamored of its allure and allowed to play with the theme in their imagination. It goes without saying that the potential produced in such an environment is vast. The attendant was obviously enjoying the exhibit as well -- she was very pleased to host it for visitors, and readily informed us that we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg -- there was much more on the lower level of the exhibit, down a curving set of stairs.

crypto_coelaThis was exciting! We started out our tour, finding it difficult to pick what to look at first. Rachel Berwick's beautifully cast Living Fossil: Latimeria chalumnae, a copal (premature amber) piece, caught our eye as soon as we walked in the door. Its translucent body silmultaneously reflected and captured the light of the room so magnificently it was difficult to tear ourselves away from it and its pearlescent prehistoric eye to look at the huge and eerily still graphite and acrylic canvases of Walmor Correa that hung behind it.

Also featured in the first segment of the gallery were pieces done by teachers from my alma mater, the Maine College of Art. Sean Foley had stepped past his usual canvases and embarked on a diorama/cutout fantasy journey into the cryptozoological wonderland, creating a whimsical confection of cartoon colors for the viewer to transplant themselves into while viewing. Nearby, a series of photos by Ellen Lesperance and Jeanine Oleson housed their own wild visions of wilderness and hybridization of the human soul with the untamed land. The atmosphere generated by the photos is so lush that the human figures seemed installed in them, related but not quite belonging, too post-modern to be completely sincere but very much trying. They made me uncomfortable (something to be analyzed later).

crypto_chimeraSarina Brewer's fantabulous taxidermy concoctions reared up as we moved further into the exhibit, housed in a large glass case at the head of the stairs. Her North Woods Chimera, with three intimidating turkey heads tufted onto its furry-tailed behind, is a presence to be reckoned with. I'm glad it's only a couple of feet tall, because if it was bigger, it would be absolutely terrifying. Imagine finding it running around the woods! YIKES!!!

crypto_goat-smIn contrast, her horned goat piece (sorry, didn't write down the title) is puckish and charming. I would like one in my home, running around on its little goat legs. Then again, with a horn on its head, I could be asking for trouble. Certainly, our cats would suffer!

crypto_mephistoThen we saw the Greater Lesser Yeti, a.k.a. Mephisto, by Robert Marbury and we fell in love with it. Both of us are now huge fans of his Urban Beast Project and the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. We spent a lot of time with the Greater Lesser Yeti in between looking at all the other goodies. He's a little charmer! Little did we know what other treasures Marbury had up his sleeve for us...

crypto_thylacineRounding the corner in the main gallery, we found Alexis Rockman's beautiful series of portraits of the Tasmanian Tiger, evocative and fleeting as the archival footage they were drawn from.

crypto_killmoonThen we couldn't help but admire the tandem supernatural air and physicality of Marc Swanson's Killing Moon installation. It's a strange piece -- the action implied by the figure's stance fights with the monochrome stillness of the piece itself, and the viewer walks away with a feeling of a moment truly frozen, white and barren. This surrealness is only increased by the brace of tiny bodies the creature (a self-portrait of Swanson himself as Yeti) carries back from the hunt. We felt wary as we circled around it, as if we might ourselves be stalked next. Then we ogled Sarina Brewer's uber-creepy Fiji Mermaid nearby. Yeek!!! Fascinating. Its tail in particular amazed me -- such horrifying beauty.

Knowing Mark Dion's work, I somehow expected a more pithy piece than his installation of the entryway to the Federal Wildlife Commission's Department of Cryptozoology, Bureau for the Investigation of Paranormal Phenomena and National Institute of Comparative Astrobiology. This may have something to do with the limited size of the piece, a small hallway lobby with doors opening off it into the exhibit, or to its placement.

I think honestly if they wanted to really created the feel of it as a passageway to these wonders it should have been placed directly at the entry of the gallery, so that it WAS the actual entry point for the exhibition, with the reception desk visible through the first door to the right, instead of being entirely separate and not part of the illusion at all. But then again, I'm sure there was a reason for the placement. Maybe insurance stipulations got in the way of optimum installation.

crypto_hairyrobeNevertheless, Dion's choice of colors and interior decorating certainly gave a feel that this bureau has been around for some time, established and lingering in the eschelons of governmental offices for a long time indeed. The prints on the walls were selectively chosen and intriguing. I was fascinated by the one showing a strange animalistic anthropoid in various states of concealing dress.

Jamie Wyeth's piece, prominent but oddly placed in proximity to the aforementioned reception desk, seemed like something out of Jumanji instead of Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, with its lurid sky and stampeding furry behemoth looming at the viewer from a suburban background transformed. I've rarely seen anything from Wyeth that is anything but his own personal fantasies of place and character, so this creation takes some mental processing to assimilate, and makes me think I should look at more of what he's doing currently (I'm a big fan of a lot of his earlier work).

crypto_faunaAfter we felt we had seen everything in the main gallery, it was time to descend to the cool lower level, shadowed and studious. On the swooping descent of the stairway were featured photos and documentation of the Fauna project, produced ahead of its time in 1988 by Joan Fontcuberta and Jean Formiguera, and displayed at that time in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The winged creature in the visibly aged photos is reminiscent of prehistoric natural history displays, with an uneasy patina of respectability and a haze of inscrutability that throws off the viewer even as a close examination of the "evidence" is being attempted.

On reaching the lower level, we were greeted by a reading nook packed with books related to cryptozoology, made available to gallery visitors in a generous manner. The reading nook is adjacent to the video projection of looped footage of the last Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine, held in captivity circa 1933 at the Hobart Zoo in Australia. The video has an almost playful feel to it, as the beastie trots around the confines of his cage, yawns with his amazingly long jaws wide open, lies down, and tears at his food. I say "almost" because the footage is redolent of other things -- the graininess of the film belies its age, and the knowledge that the creature was doomed to die alone in this barren cage temper that playfulness with our 20/20 hindsight of today and give it a ghostly quality.

crypto_thylacine2Surrounding the footage are a number of related pieces, including the appropriately frozen sculptural presence of the thylacine itself as manifested in steel and resin pieces by Rachel Berwick. These contrast sharply with the almost tender feel of the portraits done by Alexis Rockman of the same subject found in the main gallery upstairs, mentioned earlier.

The next chamber holds another video exhibit, which I wish now I had stayed and absorbed more, in which the viewer is asked to hunt for Sasquatch by his or herself. A panorama of the natural landscape features in the footage, a sea of green trees and the wash of a small waterway being the obvious main characters. This piece by Jill Miller is titled Waiting for Bigfoot. Will you be rewarded for your wait? The rumors say yes.

Along the wall of the main hallway connecting the lower chambers of the gallery, there is a myriad of additional pieces, including photos by Rosamund Purcell that document mythical representations in art and architecture that emerged based on real life issues (conjoined twins and stranger things) of the modern and ancient world, and a continuation of the Fauna pieces seen on the stairway leading down.

crypto_nardogAgainst this wall we also found another piece by Robert Marbury, this time the gregarious monster Nardog, with whom we made fast friends. To quote the Nardog's known history,
While lore tells of packs of Nardogs roaming medieval forests and highlands, accurate descriptions of group habits and relationships do not exist. Alive, this Nardog stood three feet high, with a pearl white horn. She had bright red eyes and a glowing white pelt, with gray ears, paws and a gray breast patch. At sunrise and sunset, her fur changed to the color of pure gold. She ate off of the ground with difficulty because of her horn and in later years depended on a human hand to feed her. Using the rings of her horn as a method of dating, the Nardog appears to have been between two hundred and fifty years old to three hundred years old at the time of her death. Many still believe in the existence of other Nardogs, however scientific evidence is insufficient. Believers credit the lack of evidence to the fact that since no one is looking for the Nardog, no one is able to see one.
Like the Greater Lesser Yeti, we felt lucky to be able to spend a large amount of time with the Nardog, and to have had it introduced into our lives.

Our next stop was the curio cabinet presented by Jeffrey Vallance, comprised of a variety of specimens and samples, and an exceptional complement of pieces by Vallance in which he compares, contrasts, and construes various elements of mythical artifacts and creatures in a very serious yet completely cartoonish manner which engages the viewer in a manner far surpassing that of a dry and dusty museum display. I was excited to find a case that included bunyip items, as I have been enamored of this beastie since reading as a child, with alternating terror and delight, Eleanor Heady's book Brave Johnny O'Hare, illustrated by Steven Kellogg.

crypto_nessieThe last rooms of the exhibit house what for many is the main attraction -- relics from the search for unknown anthropoids over the last hundred years or so, from Yeti expeditions to Sasquatch hunts, as painstakingly collected and curated by Loren Coleman. There is room for a lot of oohing and ahhing here, as old plaster casts and hair samples sit side by side with Ogopogo monster souvenirs from British Columbia in the 1970s.

crypto_hidenseekThese specimens are joined by one-of-a-kind illustrations from eye witnesses and eye-witness accounts of various mystery hominid sightings, which are fascinating and touch on our human relation to the whole phenomena on which the field of cryptozoology is built.

crypto_bigfootOver it all, like a benevolently intimidating patriarch, stands the 8-foot tall, 500-pound Crookston Bigfoot. If ever there was an inspiration to create a shrine to Bigfoot, this room is the starting point for it.

We walked out of the show with a strange mix of feelings. The playfulness and the dread and mystery of many of the pieces is overwhelming and wonderful, an apt expression of our ambivalent love/hate affair with the natural world, as humanity tries to simultaneously preserve and destroy it selectively.

Beyond that gut reaction, there is a certain poignancy and wistfulness to the artists' treatments of the Tasmanian Tiger that really settled in under our skin. From the footage of the last known specimen in captivity, to the portraits by Alexis Rockman, to the frozen sculpture by Rachel Berwick, and the metal sculpture of the tiger in his cage which casts an evocative shadow on the wall -- all of these pieces point out that this is we have left of this unique creature -- flickers and shadows.

Overall, I would highly recommend this show to anyone. The drive from Portland is shorter than you think, and easy driving directions are available if you follow the link to the exhibit given at the top of the page. GO NOW!!! It's up 'til October, but why wait???


M.A.R.T. said...

We, at the MART, are very pleased that you liked the exhibit. Makes the drive from Minneapolis to Lewiston and back very much worth it.
Drop me a line at either the rogue site or the beast site and i'll send off some beast postcrads to you.

M. Mann said...

Great exhibit! I'll have to check it out when I'm in the area.

M. Mann said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The pictures of their blog are very beautiful. Congratulations! ! !

Michelle Souliere said...

MARTfolks-- Well I for one am very pleased that you HAVE the exhibit, and I may even make a return trip!

Mark-- It's definitely worth a trip, although I guess I've already said that in the review, it was said in terms of folks coming from much closer by than you would be over there in BC! :)

Ocio-- Thank you! :) I have a lot of fun taking photos, it's nice to be able to share them with so many people this time.

Anonymous said...

Great article and photos!

- Penny

Chris Jart said...

Hey Michelle, fantastic article! Not only is it intelligent and insightful, but the photos add a nice touch, especially the ones where you guys posed with them. You know I like the goofy poses!!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant report, Michelle. No wonder it's been grabbing so much attention. Will you be doing another printed STRANGE MAINE? If so, this should go in there.

Michelle Souliere said...

Penny D.-- Thanks!!! :)

Chris-- There will never be any shortage of goofy poses in my photo essays. Ha!

Josh-- Heck YEAH there will be -- I'm working on issue #3 right now. I hadn't thought of putting this in there, but now that you mention it... might not be a bad idea!

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