May 18, 2010
RAM treats insects as art
Three women artists with an affinity for insects have taken over the Racine Art Museum. They have filled two of the museum's big galleries with thousands of moths, bumblebees, beetles and especially cockroaches -- an installation of three related shows designed to humanize these creatures and restore our sense of awe.
There are dollhouses decorated with beeswax and insect parts, fine drawings and visual puns, and five-foot wide photographs of giant cockroaches in unusual poses. Cockroaches in costume; cockroaches being executed; cockroaches taking over our homes.
And yet ... to use a term from Bruce Pepich, museum director, there's no "ick" factor. "The artists have the wonderment of a child. For adults, they reawaken a sense of awe."
Earlier this month we posted, in the Kiosk, a story about these three interlocking exhibitions by Catherine Chalmers (cockroaches), Jennifer Angus (insect patterns) and JoAnna Poehlmann (insectopedia). Tuesday we got a sneak peak, touring the installation with Poehlmann, Pepich and RAM's new curator of exhibitions, Lena Vigna. It was eye-opening, both visually and intellectually.
But first, a disclaimer from Vigna: "No cockroaches were harmed in the making of this exhibition." That made me feel a lot better than a couple of other things she said: "The average candy bar has eight insect legs in it." And, "cockroaches can live a week without their head."
Those two last statements may help explain Pepich's observation about "the discomfort we have of sharing our homes with these insects." But as he passed one of Chalmer's wall-sized photographs he also noted that cockroaches "are much less threatening in pink."
Chalmers' installation is in three parts, featuring video and large photographs of costumed cockroach "imposters," (above), cockroach "executions," (left), and giant-appearing cockroaches inhabiting our homes (actually small dollhouses that Chalmers creates, which makes the cockroaches seem much, much bigger. The story behind Vigna's "none were harmed" disclaimer is that the roaches are chilled, embellished, posed for their closeups, and then thawed out of hibernation. Any adornment then falls off and the cockroaches are, we are assured, none the worse for wear. But whether you want to put one of Chalmers' large photos in your dining room may be another story. (In my case, no need to ask the wife; I already know the answer.)
Poehlmann explained the background of some of her artwork; for example, a miniature book with four beetles created after John Lennon was killed -- hence its title: Homage to the Beatles. She likes "appropriating " other artwork, and adding bugs, visual and verbal puns that play on the original painting. "Taking things out of their original context," is how Pepich described it.
"People give me things," Poehlmann said, pointing to a small sewing box she adorned with insects. "I keep looking for more boxes like that. I just got in the mail a box of 12 bumblebees... I was thrilled."
Angus' patterns of insect life used the most bugs -- thousands of them mounted artistically on walls around illustrations from a Victorian children's alphabet book, and more in beeswax dioramas staged around dollhouses, like a bug funeral, bugs kissing a cow, scenes from fairy tales. The exhibit took the artist and four workmen almost a week to install. Vigna assured us that Angus "reuses" the insects as many times as she can. And Pepich noted, "A lot of these insects are not Midwestern bugs -- or we'd be doing an installation of mosquitoes, and houseflies."
Here are some quotes from the artists:
Catherine Chalmers: "Insects are a window into the unimaginable... One of the things I discovered when reading up on the American cockroach is that they are no longer found in the wild. They have existed for hundreds of millions of years, have survived several mass extinctions, yet we have succeeded in chaging how they live. Our homes are now their natural habitat. They are, in a sense, our alter-egos, the shadows that clandestinely follow in our wake.... Our hatred of the roach has perhaps grown in proportion to the boundaries we have erected between ourselves and the natural world."
Jennifer Angus: "I never liked insects; after all I grew up in Canada where most things seem to be black or brown and bite or sting. I have a revulsion for earwigs in particular... and I think junebugs are the stupidest insect I have ever seen because of the way they get stuck on their backs and buzz around trying to right themselves."
JoAnna Poehlmann (above): "My reaction to the world of insects is simply awe at the endless variety and limitless subject matter of creation and the desire to reflect what is witnessed."
RAM has scheduled many events around this All The Buzz exhibition, including kids' days, bug days, opportunities to meet with the artists, summer camp and the like. The full list is here.