The strange beauty of Wild Life2/1/2017
Walter Hagen, who dominated golf in the early 20th century, was one of the most quotable athletes of all time. He’s credited for coining the phrases “No one remembers who finished second” and “Life’s short, don’t forget to smell the flowers along the way,” among other popular lines. I was reminded of my favorite Hagen quote while mulling “Wild Life” at the Des Moines Art Center: “It is the addition of strangeness to beauty that constitutes the romantic character of art.”
Wild Life, which plays through April 16, began as a challenge to DMAC Director Jeff Fleming to discuss ideas revolving around the concept of “wild kingdom.” Likely because the museum had recently exhibited a show called “Wild Kingdom,” this show changed its name. It interprets the title as broadly as possible. Irrational, dreamlike and disordered thought became as much a focus as animal and plant life. The show is divided among exploits of human behavior, nature, hybrids and viewpoints of civic and mechanical structures.
In all sections, the imaginations of the artists dominate and add strangeness to their beauty. Goya’s “Disasters of the War” series turns the horrors of war into a grotesque black humor and precursor to surrealism. It is brilliantly paired with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “Ethchasketchathon,” a series that takes Goya’s original works and reinterprets them by putting them in a child’s coloring book with the same horrors being committed by clowns and youngsters. Emile Nolde’s “Family,” completed at the end of World War I, shows a desperate family of refugees in flight. Nolde’s strange beauty was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis a few years later, and his works were confiscated on a larger scale than any other artist who incurred the wrath of the Third Reich.
From the nature section, Robyn O’Neil’s “There does come a time when laughs become sighs; We put all to rest, we said our goodbyes” shows another scene of refugee flight in dazzling scale. A multitude of tiny figures move across a wintry landscape toward a foreboding mountain. Des Moines native Anna Gaskell, best known for photographs of pubescent girls in peril, shows a drawing here of a murder of crows feasting on fresh blooded carrion. T.L. Solien is represented by a mixed media image, “Bad Blood,” that shows a microscopic organism that seems to have a human face shedding a tear.
The hybrid section reflects upon the long, strange history of myth and imagination. Long before werewolves and vampires were imagined by Christian-era Romans and Romantic poets respectively, the ancients were acquainted with centaurs, satyrs, gorgons and harpies. This show introduced me to another — the Borametz, or vegetable lamb. Fleming uses this part sheep/part rooted plant by suggesting it might have been Middle Age peasants’ explanation for the wild cotton plant. It also sets up a star of the show — Tatashi Murakami’s “Making a U Turn, The Lost Child Finds His Way Home.” This wonderful fantasy is a hybrid of mushrooms and humans as well as of several styles of Japanese arts from Edo period traditions to modern cartoons and manga.
In the views of civic and mechanical section, Iowan Timothy Wehrle dazzles in much the same way O’Neil does, with intricate detailing of minutia in multitude. Drake professor Phillip Chen’s “Take Waking” shows a washboard and a corset with blueprint drawings for things that would replace them.
Fleming quoted the former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway in his introduction to this wildly thoughtful show. “The question we should ask of a myth is not whether it is true or false, if it did or did not happen, but whether it is dead or alive, whether it still carries existential meaning for us in our time.” That is the beauty of all this strangeness. ♦