July 2016: Rachel Yurkovich

3:55 pm, August 10, 2016 in Blog, Photography, Reviews by Ken Aschliman

Rachel Yurkovich, Installation view


Rachel Yurkovich constructs an exhibition that is reminiscent of a laboratory filled with peculiar experiments. Although visually the work has a clean, scientific aesthetic, the acrid smell of vinegar and dirt immediately confronts the viewer, while the soft, tense sounds pierce the gallery with a subtle sense of horror. Yurkovich derives her artwork from biological experiments that satiate our curiosity by highlighting truly bizarre animal behavior. A dying/brown apple tree and preying mantis terrarium are the centerpiece of the show and are surrounded by numerous video monitors and preserved bug specimens in the gallery. The living specimens are part of her ongoing experimentation during their stay in the gallery.


In Self-Indulgence, Yurkovich tests the effects of watering an apple tree with apple juice. The spindly apple tree appears feeble and sad with its brown, withered leaves and frail trunk. At the beginning of the exhibition the tree had three remaining green leaves but they quickly browned, serving as a harsh juxtaposition to the lush trees that line the street just outside the gallery window. The tree is fed four bottles of Great Value apple juice on a weekly basis, and as the bottles are emptied into the tree’s base, they are placed back into an array on the floor to demonstrate the experiment’s progress. Mixed odors of the apple juice, the soil, and what can be perceived as the decay of the tree create strong acidic smell that is instantly off-putting. It seems as if the tree is drowning within its own products as the soil begins to oversaturate, and we are witness to its tragic and fetid decay. Self-Indulgence highlights the limits of consumption. Excess in this case inevitably leads to decay. As the tree is undergoing an unnatural process in the artificial gallery space, we cannot help feeling empathy for it.


Rachel Yurkovich, still from Egg Eating Chicken


In the video Egg Eating Chicken features a test subject who is an active agent in its gluttony. A hen furiously pecks at her own egg until she cracks open the shell and carries it further back into her nest to eat the oozing white and yolk. The experiment is filmed like a dark horror, the gruesomely violent and frantic pecking of the chicken on its own egg seems like a crazed infanticide. Yurkovich explores this strange relationship with the consumption of its own bodily product, as hens do occasionally consume their own unfertilized eggs. The chicken is not deliberately engaging in cannibalism; the act is more of a selfish indulgence. The yolk of the egg is meant as a nutrient for the embryonic chick, and this hen consuming her own byproduct is odd, like a woman drinking her own breast milk. The taste of the yolk has become addictive to the hen, which will continue to voraciously eat her own eggs. On farms this behavior condemns hens to be slaughtered because they no longer produce eggs. The chicken’s vicious and relentless pecking represents an alarming loss of self-control, and the furious delight of consumption that blinds of impending consequences.


In Yurkovich’s mantis works she tests the insects cannibalistic behavior which is not only self-willed but an intrinsic characteristic of their species. Yurkovich began this series of experiments by playing matchmaker for two mantises in order to breed further generations.. With incredible clarity and detail, much to our horror, she captures the mating dance of the mantises and the eventual consumption of the male mantis by the hungry and unfeeling female. The video is shot with a degree of intimacy, as if the close shots upon the the face of the feasting mantis were actually trained upon the face of a human instead. The insects spare us no gore or horror. This feeling is amplified by the incredibly anthropomorphic quality of the mantises with their long torsos and upright posture. To the female mantis, this act ensures that she has the proper food supply to successfully produce her eggs. If there is an abundant food supply in their environment, a majority of the time mating the females will not consume their male partners. Female mantises are not intrinsically cannibalistic, but rather opportunistically cannibalistic. In the case of Yurkovich’s mantises, the indulgent nuptial gift is determined by the environment and appetite of the female.


Rachel Yurkovich, The Second Generation detail


The First Generation and The Second Generation tell a family drama ripe with accidental death, cannibalism, and incest. Yurkovich preserves the dead mantises from previous experiments, complete with pins and scientific labelling for their identification. Through close inspection of the labels, the tragic fate of these insects is laid out for us. The world of the mantis is brimming with danger. Of ten males, only one was consumed by a female mantis; the others have died naturally, only to be partially consumed by crickets, their intended food. However, the mantises are not preoccupied with traditional family values. Their primary concern is to eat and reproduce, with the ultimate goal beings the continuation of its species.


Rachel Yurkovich, still from Boiling Frog Syndrome


Yurkovich puts animal instinct to the test again in the video Boiling Frog Syndrome. Her experiment explores the veracity of the adage, “If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out right away, but if you slowly heat the water in the pot by small degrees it will not notice and will be boiled to death.” Historically, several experiments like Yurkovich’s have tested this saying with negative results (the earliest being in 1869 by German physiologist Friedrich Goltz). Yurkovich stages her experiment in a clean environment with cool light. She places a white tree frog in a metal sauce pan on a lab stovetop and raises the temperature in controlled increments of five degrees Celsius every ten minutes. The video teems with suspense. The temperature climbs slowly, creeping closer and closer to 100 degrees, yet the frog does not yet attempt to escape. Yurkovich captures the frog in intimate close-ups. We expect the frog to wince in pain or to see fear flicker in its eyes, but for the most part it is unflinching. Even once the frog decides that the water is too hot, it only leaps up onto the metal lip of the saucepan. After three hours and fifty minutes, the frog ends the experiment by jumping from the lip, but only once the water passes the boiling point. Though the frog is not actively consuming anything, the experiment is staged to test the frogs will to survive. In an eat or be eaten world, if the frog were to be boiled alive in the pot it would be complicit in it’s own consumption.


Yurkovich’s experiments highlight natural behaviors that we initially perceive as bizarre and destructive like self-cannibalism and sexual cannibalism. Yet, our perception is tinged by our human experiences. Her experiments draw out feelings of revulsion, but also pity. We tend to project our values and concerns upon animal behaviors as if they were our own. The excessive consumption we witness in Yurkovich’s experiments bring to mind human overconsumption and self-destructive behaviors  like eating disorders, drug addiction, alcoholism. At times it is easier to feel empathy for a frog or an insect, a creature so different from ourselves, than to confront issues that plague our own species.


By Harlee Mollenkopf

July 2016: Kate Ball

3:52 pm, in Blog, Photography, Reviews by Ken Aschliman

Kate Ball, Installation view


In the exhibition Lawn Game, Kate Ball creates works that emerge from the setting of the middle American backyard, and are mired in a grotesque kitsch aesthetic. Her exhibition showcases bizarre collages and stop-motion videos that explore the relationship between humans and animals. Ball’s process begins with creating collagraph prints that involve gluing collage materials and found objects onto the printing plate. Next she cuts up her prints and combines them with other found objects in her mixed media pieces and stop-motion videos. The works are neither polished nor self-contained, rather Ball’s collages sprawl out freely on the walls and found sculptural elements adorn the  works. The stop motion videos echo with American folk tunes and intermittent grunts and shrieks. Ball’s crude style manifests itself in the quickly cut collage elements that are roughly glued, sewn, or tied to one another, culminating in creatures that are neither human nor animal. The disturbing world created in Lawn Game critiques the rocky relationship between human and animal cohabitors in the constructed habits of suburbia.


Ball pieces together her stop-motion videos, A Little Stroll and Lawn Game, in a rough style that brings to mind the way in which Victor Frankenstein vivified his monster. A Little Stroll must be glimpsed through a massive wooden bird box that protrudes from the gallery wall. The LED screen in an animal’s habitat is conflicting. However, the stop-motion video raises even further dissonance between the natural world and synthetic human sphere. A picturesque mountain backdrop, carpet with faux fur, and a soundtrack  of “Home on the Range” set the stage for the video. Strange fleshy figures that are roughly pieced and stitched together creep in and out of the frame. Between shots of the faux fur, the figures wink, laugh, grimace, and cry tears of sprinkles while slithering about like snakes on their unusually long necks. Between the intermittent appearance of the monster-like figures, animal crackers fight each other in a much more animalistic way than their candy coated appearance suggests. One overtakes the other, stringing jelly guts across the frame. Then the faux fur on the ground creeps out of the frame. The facial features of the figures change from frame to frame and to match their expressions, and none match the the angle of the face. Disconnect between the features and the figures is unnerving and makes their reactions seem disingenuous. Also, The manmade environment in A Little Stroll highlights the constructed relationship that we have with nature.


Kate Ball, still from Lawn Game


Lawn Game, which shares its name with the title of the exhibition, runs rampant with feverish internal conflict. The stop-motion video features a monstrous collage of a man who is mowing his lush manicured lawn, completely pantless with a laughably large penis swinging about freely. The character is a suburban status symbol with his manhood on full display. Pausing his lawn mowing to pick up a baseball bat, something completely unexpected happens, he gives birth to a deer. His initial horror at the unexpected and vulgar event soon turns to joy, he is the proud father of this creature. Then, he gives birth to another, and another, until the rate is out of control. Soon deer are all over his lawn mating, defecating, fighting, and tearing up his lawn. His love for his progeny is met with a psychotic break. How dare they destroy his gorgeous lawn. In a fit of rage he kills them all with a baseball bat. Realizing the gravity of his action, he faints, only to have more deer spawn from his mouth. The strange hallucination appears as a Freudian battle within the suburban male psyche. The video highlights the suburban man’s internal struggle between controlling and respecting nature as well as the base desire for dominance and control.


Kate Ball, Ingredients detail


The installation Ingredients strips down the exhibition to its base elements. The installation displays rows of itemized prints and found objects in plastic bags labeled with masking tape and Sharpie, to be used in Ball’s collage and stop-motion works. Each bag is nailed directly to the wall. Some of the bags are labeled “flesh,” “SUV’s,” “taxidermy heads,” and “cats,” though the contents are more or less true to their label. Others contain humorous and unusual combinations like “Naked Men & Home Appliances” and “Bats & the Queen.” The contents capture a slice of suburban life. Ball includes stereotypical objects, and also visceral, disgusting objects that polite culture tends to smooth over and ignore.


Deer Etchings series from left to right: Icon, Manicure, Exhibit, Whhhite, Bambi


Ball’s Deer Etchings series repeats the same etching of a deer that is stylistically like a saint’s icon. In each piece she uses various collage elements and sculptural treatments to alter the etching. Because of their frontal presentation and direct eye contact with the viewer, the deer take on a human quality and  showcase different personalities. In the first print, Icon, the deer is adorned with a golden background, scrupulous human eyes, and a rosary that is hung below the frame. Because the golden background and rosary depict the deer as if it were a saint, this piece symbolizes our relationship with nature as inherently spiritual and therapeutic. In Manicure this deer has rectangles of turf covering its eyes and a tangle of outdoor string lights hung below it. The string lights below the portrait easily draw comparison to Christian Boltanski’s photo installations, and the piece highlights our need to conquer nature and subject it to our rules of order. In the middle print, Exhibit, the deer is hung in a gold frame with glassy ceramic eyes, ivy and straw. The portrait champions a pastoral aesthetic, used to romanticize nature in myth, literature, and traditional art. In Whhhite the deer is adorned with a cut-outs of the Confederate flag, the lid of aPBR can, paper antlers, and steel truck nuts that dangle below. This piece pokes fun at the “country boy” subculture that is often stereotypically associated with hunting, drinking, and a penchant for the Confederate flag. Finally, in Bambi the deer’s eyes and mouth are replaced with glossy cut outs of Bambi and, in a nod to Mike Kelly’s found object sculptures, Ball hangs a headless stuffed animal below the print. This spotlights the exceedingly cute and pure pop-culture representation of animals. The thematic variety in the Deer Etchings exemplifies the differing degrees in which we esteem nature.  


Kate Ball, Owl & Virginia


Ball’s collagraph collages Blue Bits and Owl & Virginia probe further into horrifying hybrids between animals, humans, and refuse. In Blue Bits, she creates birds connected with thin, frayed copper wiring. The birds appear as an army of robots in serious disrepair. Upon close inspection, the birds are made up of collagraphs of paper towels and cheese cloth, and their eyes are made of embroidered hoops. Owl & Virginia is similarly peculiar. The collagraph of the owl (made of prints similar to those used in Blue Bits) holds strings in its french-tip talons that pull on the on the awkward leggy deer below as if it were a puppet. Bodies of the animals roughly take on characteristics of the human form, but the details are ill-fitting and strange. The owl has fake plastic toenails and black lace doilies for eyes. The deer has a large print of a toothy human mouth that dominates its face, leather ties that hold its joints together, and human hair that is attached to its tail. The animals seem almost alive, but their existence falls into an uncanny valley, too human to be read as animal and too animal to be read as human.


Taken together, Ball’s exhibition reflects our estrangement from nature. The handmade animal hybrids, like Frankenstein’s monster, are so alienated from their original source that they incite disgust. Ball’s process mirrors the way in which we create manicured parks in order to have a quasi-natural experience, although our streets, homes, and lawns push the natural further and further away. Nature is no longer the norm; it is strange and uncomfortable. Ball’s work is a haunting reminder of our utter lack of environmental stewardship in the age of consumerism and our hypocritical attempts at reconnecting with a natural world that we are complicit in destroying. 


By Harlee Mollenkopf

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