by Mikko Lautamo
If creatures from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are emerged from Bosch's Hell and crawled, dismembered and staggering, across The Garden of Earthly Delights, you’d have a tableau akin to Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor’s (This is Not a) Love Song. The exhibition is part of a partnership between Verge Center for the Arts and the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, which opens Nov. 13 at UC Davis. (Higgins O’Connor earned an M.F.A there in 2005.) The six sculptures comprising the Sacramento artist’s show measure eight to 15 feet in height, and are made from cardboard, discarded bedding, lumber and pink and blue paint. Their sheer scale brings to mind Spanish cabezudos — the “big heads” that taunt young women and children in parades. The figures are tightly packed into the gallery, some appearing to run, others slumped over in a stupor, others clutching themselves and writhing as if in pain or delirium. Strewn in the corners are naked bed frames and furniture, suggesting that this hodgepodge of monsters burst from eggs or cocoons. Though they conjure vivid nightmares or bad acid trips, O’Connor’s use of bright color as well as a paper flower motif lends each tortured giant a poignant air of quiet vulnerability – a sharp contrast to the otherwise loud carnivalesque atmosphere given off by the assembled group.
The most striking among them is shadowboxing to your breadcrumbs, a 15-foot tall female figure with a fox head and knock knees, a signal, perhaps, of clumsy adolescence or drunkenness. She clutches her groin with one hand while motioning with the other toward a malformed cardboard breast, her mouth agape as if screaming or moaning. The pose is ambiguous, part way between bold exhibitionism and startled modesty – a play on the classical Aphrodite of Knidos whose hand “modestly” covered her genitals, paradoxically increasing the erotic charge of the statue. O’Connor’s shadowboxing is much more confrontational: the violent, almost pained expression on the face ramps up the sense of violation, a clear allusion to the “not” part of the title.
The donkey-headed hate stayed the end that love started to say, points to another historical reference, Goya’s Los Caprichos, specifically Capricho No. 39 which shows a jackass looking at his family with the caption “and so was your grandfather.” While the source is humorous, hate stayed is anything but. The animal’s arms are outstretched, as if steadying itself to stand; but its legs are shot, the left dismembered into a pile of colored paper scraps, the right a bare, thin piece of blanket below the knee. Like the Caprichos, which were meant to instruct the citizenry
of Goya’s time, O’Connor’s sculptures point to people (and animals) being kicked to the gutter or mocked. From a structural and emotional standpoint, these works align closely with those of Robb Putman, a Bay Area artist who’s long used detritus and fabric scraps to build anthropomorphic forms that point toward fragility and decay.
O’Connor’s figures, like Putnam’s, reveal overwhelming sadness, found mainly in the eyes and crumbling body parts. But there is also, in their rag-doll countenance, a superficial playfulness. We see it in Fever to tell (a stumpy dog clutching a scrap of bedding like Linus’ blanket) and in he darked the sun, in which a figure strikes an exaggerated hula pose. Mostly, it’s the darker side that prevails, as in the haunting stare of stuck hard. In this, a head made of paper flower cutouts holds together like a pile of autumn leaves, but turns optically confusing on close inspection. The legs are perceptibly wasted down into scraps, and on its thigh a strip of cardboard reads “reuse of this box is strictly prohibited.”
Indeed, Higgins O’Connor’s sculptures sing us no love songs.
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Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor: “(This is Not a) Love Song” @ Verge Center for the Arts through October 16, 2016.
Photos: David M. Roth
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.