Creatures and Creation at the Bakehouse
“Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” may be a suitably startled reaction for any viewer entering LESSONS IN POST-BIOLOGY: The Creations of
Judith Berk King and Enrique Gomez De Molina. Paralleling Dorothy’s famous line from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which encapsulated a young
girl’s fear of encountering unknown creatures in a strange wood, in the gallery the viewer encounters a dramatic moment between artists who are
masters at presenting viewers with the unexpected. Technically dazzling and with a dash of danger, these two artists suggest the ever-increasing
convergence of the march of scientific advancement, with the alterations being made to biological life forms in the name of aesthetics. This ability to
alter and shape life is both profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing, and King and De Molina are at the forefront of a group of artists exploring how
this speeded-up process of evolution is already effecting how society views the proliferation and expanding limits of biological forms.
The broad interest by artists in scientifically altered biological life was kick-started into the general public’s imagination in the year 2000, when the artist
Eduardo Kac hired a genetics company to produce GFP Bunny, a rabbit that fluoresced green under certain light, the result of a jellyfish gene inserted
into the rabbit’s DNA code. In the art world, this set off a storm of controversy over the proper role of manipulating nature for purely aesthetic purposes.
The debate continues, but Kac’s provocative creation was an important reminder that life-forms are constantly changing and evolving, and that human
beings have been shaping and transforming seemingly “natural” biological forms for centuries. In their careful selection for exaggerated Mannerist
form, the thorough-bred horse and the gardener’s prize-winning rose are every bit as manipulated as Kac’s rabbit.
At first glance, the work of King and De Molina appears very different: King’s elegant, attenuated drawings in monochromatic graphite are refined, her
lines as delicate and as strong as a spider’s web, and as precisely drawn as deliberately scientific anatomical studies. Her animals are strangely
familiar, but somehow unlike anything the viewer may have encountered before – sea creature and bird seem uncomfortably merged. King’s forms
here suggest the purity of line of the pencil drawings of the nineteenth-century Neoclassical French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, with his
vividly distinct elongation. King’s animals sinuously tiptoe into the viewer’s consciousness “on little cat feet,” or float through unseen oceans, their
subtle strangeness revealing themselves as a reward for careful observation. On the other hand, De Molina’s sculptures are bundles of fireworks: his
work is a carnival technicolor dream of an alternate animal kingdom come to life in front of the viewer. Frozen in motion, his works simultaneously
tantalize and threaten to come to life.
King has issued a clear kind of manifesto in her Portfolio of Biological Futurism series – and her work here derives from the idea of another mass
extinction from flooding, overpopulation, environmental degradation and a subsequent reinvigoration of life forms. This kind of apocalyptic vision and
the rampant, disturbing profusion of life run amok has been a powerful vision of contemporary artists in recent years. Artists such as Alexis Rockman
have played with this notion of creative destruction, and Christy Rupp has explored a series of bizarre creatures that emerge from humankind’s gluttony
and waste, but De Molina’s work is more enigmatic. His animals are usually presented in isolation and there is a perverse cheerfulness that pervades
his work. The viewer is left unsure if he presents his animal creations as naturally evolving creatures, or as escapees of a lab, a circus, or the artist’s
While King’s drawings suggest fantastical creatures in a new biological world artfully transposed by a classically trained hand, De Molina’s use of
combined and altered actual taxidermic specimens creates encounters with seemingly “real” creatures that can simply take a viewer’s breath away in
their vivid “present-ness.” De Molina’s work is a kind of biological Rubik’s Cube: his success lies in the careful consideration of how parts of animal
forms, already existing in nature, can be recombined, repurposed, reconsidered. His work jumps past the idea of evolution to the idea of re-creation,
and manages to simultaneously suggest both the future and a kind of biblical, post-Flood world, in which entirely new species have emerged. Or De
Molina suggests God, hard at work on the sixth day of Creation, after decreeing “let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and
creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind,” suddenly having second thoughts and deciding to go in a different direction.
De Molina’s choices lead to utterly convincing combinations of differing but complementary animal parts. His sculptures make the viewer double take
at the strangeness of the creatures on display, but critically, his work underscores the fundamental fantastical nature of real animals that he did not
create. He reminds us that the elephant and the anteater are truly strange beasts in their own right. In this way, De Molina succeeds in presenting his
own vision, but allows that viewer to see the actual world with fresh eyes.
Many of De Molina’s animals appear to be “correct,” in that if Mother Nature did not actually design these animals, perhaps she should have. What If
(2014) shows a feathered creature with a bird’s head and a tail on a quadruped’s legs, each hoof subtly altered into a stiletto-tipped point not seen in
nature, but nonetheless perfect. This is an animal designed to skitter across an open veldt at high speeds - a cartoon four-legged road runner. Cha Cha
Cha (2014) is an unusually restrained color palette for De Molina. As opposed to the high speeds seemingly capable of the animal in What If, the Cha
Cha Cha seems ironically hobbled by legs that are far too short for an animal of its size. It is suggestive of an animal perhaps better built for the limbo
than the cha-cha.
De Molina humorously plays with titles in many of his work. “Calico” cats have long been known by their patchwork appearance, and the artists takes
the name to its upmost extreme with his feline, the size of a lion (Calico, 2016), who has been constructed out of an alarming array of fur, feathers, and
scales. Despite his size and appearance, the animal looks up plaintively, non-threateningly, in a mute appeal to the viewer. Although De Molina is
ostensibly presenting a vision of animals of the future, his use of taxidermy roots him in nineteenth century traditions, especially the cabinet of
curiosities, in which unusual specimens would be presented in glass jars, or dressed in clothing, or grouped, as in the strange work of Walter Potter,
into bizarre bourgeois domestic settings.
There is something deeply unnerving about Hog the Stoplight (2011), a strange work of a giant, lumpen, bear-like creature blindly clawing its way
forward, being led by a much smaller animal on a rope. De Molina here cultivates the idea of the freak show. Despite the disparity of size, the large
animal seems at the mercy of the smaller one, an animal the appears convincingly weasel-y and cunning. The ambiguity of the power dynamic in
inverse proportion to the animal’s scale disturbs.
However, King’s work allows the viewer to observe with a kind of careful scientific scrutiny that rewards study, as she allows her work to be put under
the metaphorical microscope. As distinct from her drawings, King’s “X-Ray” prints are heavier, but also more fraught, because they signal to the viewer
all the weight of scientific inquiry and the seeming irrefutable certainty of being presented with an X-ray.
King plays with the limited range of her black and white monochromatic palette to dramatic effect. In her drawings, she presents clear dark lines
reversal of color against a white sheet, and the lines in works like Untethered (2015) have a true balletic gracefulness that comforts the viewer, but
works like Leap (2014) underscore that beauty also often has danger – here, an unidentifiable creature, with huge, gaping jaws wide open, lunges
through the air at a hovering group of delicate, fluttering insects, a kind of action scene caught and frozen in midair. Although suggesting a primal
violence, King presents the episode coolly and matter of factly - as pure documentation of a fiction. She might have filled the page with a dark,
foreboding chiaroscuro, but her work retains an eighteenth-century lightness of line.
King excels at the intertwined and complex compositions of sinuous tendrils in images like Untethered and this complexity pervades even works like
Burden (2014), in which one set of creatures seems to drag along, on delicate tentacles, much heavier shells, pods, or eggs. It is not clear if the
burden these creatures drag along are their homes, their offspring, their food, or parasites who have lashed themselves to accommodating hosts. King
leaves the title ambiguous and lets the viewer bring to the work his or her feelings about care, commitment, and responsibility.
King’s “X-ray” series (2016) has threatening names like X-ray of Praedator aerium and X-ray of Carnivora manipulus, whose representations appear as
powerful and sleekly-designed as jet engines. These works are vaguely militaristic, and serve as reminders that engineers and designers have long
studied and adapted animal forms to develop technologies in vehicles like the B-52 bomber. Bat-like, or Batmobile-like, King’s animals are a reminder
that all existence is a Darwinian competition for resources and that this struggle is a kind of ongoing warfare. In a similar way De Molina’s Ratatouille
(2011) suggests protective adaptation at work, the artist using a plethora of shimmering scarab beetle shells to create a colorful armature for a giant
De Molina and King both present unnerving, tenuous, frightening, but ultimately positive messages about the future. The positivity of their vision is
embedded within the act of creation. Both artists ultimately underscore the sheer power of nature and biology in its endlessly multiplying, replicating,
and changing determination to exist in every conceivable form. Within this profusion, King and De Molina have a shared passion for true line and
innovative form, which lend credence, weight, and plausibility to the most seemingly outrageous creations in our chaotic world.
Bartholomew F. Bland, Director, Lehman College Art Gallery, City University of New York
LESSONS IN POST-BIOLOGY: The Creations of Judith Berk King and Enrique Gomez De Molina January 6 – February 24, 2017, Swenson Gallery.