Imaginary sea creatures are becoming to 21st century galleries what still lifes were to their counterparts in days gone by. Drawings of odd little creatures are everywhere, vaguely resembling insects, sea critters or microbes. They follow the geometrical logic of random doodling, often with prodigious detail—for an example you need look no further than Devendra Banhart’s drawings on his CDs. This biomorphic profusion might lead you to wave your arms and shout “Derivative! Derivative!” but hold on. Art always involves genres. Cut flowers in glass vases. The Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. Dog-headed gods. The trick is what the artist does with the material.
The Tennessee Arts Commission’s current show highlights two artists who work in these contemporary genres. Jason Briggs is making biomorphic forms in highly accomplished porcelain sculptures. Chris Scarborough uses characteristics of Japanese anime cartoons, another common inspiration today. Both artists make you think twice about how their work was made, and both create images that may give some viewers the willies. The distorted eyes in Scarborough’s photos and drawings lend his figures an eerie, unnatural quality, and Briggs covers his objects with protuberances and cavities that seem like they must be genitalia, or one end of the digestive tract.
Briggs came to prominence as an artist-in-residence at the Appalachian Center for the Crafts in Smithville, a leading center for the preservation and extension of traditional craft techniques. Instead of the functional objects people associate with ceramics, he makes sculptures that look like they’ve been assembled from scraps of different material. A piece like “Flirt” shows the variety of textures and forms he cobbles together. The sculpture is shaped vaguely like a dolphin, with two flaps that could be lips on one end. The main texture of the “body” looks like flesh stripped of hair and bunched together as if it were upholstery. This fleshy upholstery is split by a band of bone-colored porcelain punctured with a lacy tracery of holes. A white strip that looks stretched taut connects the two ends, and a section on the back has the pattern of shoelaces. Little globes of clay pop up, and small branches arch over the surface. The end of the elongated form has a slit highlighted in glittery red nail polish. Various points on the surface are adorned with small hairs that look like arm hairs or thin pubic hair. The piece is a masterful exercise in the textures a ceramicist can evoke with porcelain, but its biological echoes give it an unsettling presence. Even with all the differences between the parts, they’re linked by a shared psychological tone.
While each of the bits and pieces in a sculpture like “Flirt” suggests an association with a specific thing—lips, flesh, hair—none of the components fully mimics an identifiable object; the piece doesn’t depict lips so much as hints at them. But actual, recognizable elements—particularly toes and fingers—appear in other works. Some of them are composed almost entirely of human digits—such as “Plug,” which consists of a thick toe placed back to back with a smaller, daintier finger that is painted with red nail polish, the two digits joined by a little sphere decorated with a tracery of holes. Toes are a logical formal extension of the harder-to-pin-down shapes in Briggs’ sculptures, and he has used them before—although he acknowledges that “in the past year those elements have really been showing up a lot. I commented to a student three to four months ago that I must have somehow developed a toe fetish recently.” His joking remark deflects attention from the effective way the toes make it impossible to reduce the sculptures to any category. They guarantee that the question of animal, vegetable or mineral stays up in the air.
These toes make you aware of what differentiates Briggs’ work from other art in the genre of imaginary sea creatures—its trompe l’oeil quality. In the hands of a skilled artist, clay has a remarkable ability to look like non-clay stuff. Tennessee art viewers have seen this in the work of Sylvia Hyman, who makes ceramic sculptures that imitate baskets and boxes filled with papers and other materials. The toes poking out of Briggs’ objects have a similar surprising realism.
Where Hyman’s pieces look like familiar objects, trompe l’oeil in Briggs’ work is a trickier business because his sculptures don’t look like familiar objects. They look like imaginary forms—very realistic imaginary forms. It’s art with the quality of a philosopher’s conundrum. Briggs’ sculptures pose a question: in what way do these objects, which are not patterned on any other entity, look like something other than what they are? A simplistic answer to the question is that their visual trickery consists of making one material (porcelain) mimic many different materials with different qualities of hardness, roughness and dryness. But that response limits the perception of the trompe l’oeil effects to fragments, not to the work’s total form. Each of his pieces in total also appears to be masquerading as something you can’t place. They have a double nature as illusions of illusions; they embrace and preserve, rather than resolve, the open-ended quality of the question they raise about their own relation to the universe of known things.
Chris Scarborough is best known for photographs of people that he modifies with software to give them oversized eyes and other qualities that make them look more like dolls than humans. Like Briggs’ pieces, which make you wonder what sort of material you’re looking at, Scarborough’s photos make you wonder whether you’re looking at a photo of a person or an inanimate model. A piece like “Untitled (Juliet),” in which a redheaded woman stands in front of a floral curtain, looks clearly like a setting from life that has been doctored on the computer. The photo hung next to it, “Untitled (Sara2),” comes across as a purely artificial setting. A female figure sits on a beach, but the bubbles on the still water and the size of the sand grains make it clear that this is a diorama at miniature scale. According to Scarborough, he began by building a miniature set and photographing a doll sitting in it. After shooting a human model in a similar pose, he used computer software to meld the images of the doll and the person.
Rather than set up an opposition between the natural world and the artificial world, Scarborough puts them on a spectrum where each image has a different degree of distance from verisimilitude: Among the works here, the redhead looks pretty real, while the beach scene looks blatantly fake. By establishing a range of artificiality, Scarborough brings to mind the fundamental illusion of the medium. It is absurd to look at a photo and ask, “Is this a real person?” Of course it isn’t. No matter how much or how little manipulation has taken place, every photograph is removed from the physical reality of the object in the lens.
If both of these artists are self-conscious about the references in art to non-art objects, they approach that world of other objects differently. Briggs creates things that never existed before, adding to the universe’s population of entities. Scarborough, in a way, defaces creatures that already exist, people with names whom he reduces to numbered sequences like computer files. For that reason, his works are potentially more alienating than the sculptures they share the gallery with. Though Brigg’s ceramic fantasies have squirm-inducing anatomical overtones, they may inspire affection once you get used to them, like becoming accustomed to a strange new food.