This is an essay by Cfile.org guest contributor and artist Eric Zetterquist on Beth Cavener’s latest exhibition The Other, which wrapped up earlier this week (November 15 – December 5, 2017). Please note our two sets of images; the first are by Mark Del Vecchio and give a sense of what the show, mobbed by attendees on opening night, looked like in the Jason Jacques Gallery quirky bat-cave space.
NEW YORK—Human emotions are sometimes best personified by non-human stand-ins, especially when they are dark or too challenging. This is not a new phenomenon. Native Americans imbued animal spirits with human motivations. Children often use dolls to express their innermost feelings. C. S. Lewis wrote of “Daemons”; animal companions who reflected the inner conscience and spirit of the human character.
Beth Cavener’s haunting work, now viewable in a handsomely installed exhibition at Jason Jacques Gallery in New York, confronts viewers with raw human emotions personified by animals. They include sexual identity, co-dependence, and feelings of entrapment.
Using the ceramic medium to its best effect, Cavener sculpts the animal, then hollows out each section allowing her to imbue the creatures with fleshiness and muscular kinetic energy by creating bulges from within. She then reassembles onto an armature. On the surface, the fur of the figures is carved in bold impressionist strokes, often implying a sense of movement. The pieces are then painted in matte colors, which dramatically absorb the light.
In one repeated theme of the show, beasts are chained to beasts in futile power plays. In the largest sculpture, a timber wolf is chained neck-to-neck with a monkey, who tugs at the chain, while about to throw stones. Despite being the smaller of the two beasts, he is in control and the aggressor. Another work, entitled “Limerence”, has two white foxes caught in a swirling and futile embrace as they bite each other’s necks and claw at each other’s flesh. (The titles of these works often infer or satirize their meanings.) In “Beloved” a large deer rears up as its antlers are caught in a beautiful swirling, knotted rope.
Rabbits are a hallmark subject matter for Cavener. In this show tethered rabbits vainly leap against fraying restraints. “Unrequited” depicts a reclining rabbit pulling back her fleshy belly, accentuating her genitals, and confronting you with her sexuality. As “They”, an all-black rabbit of no identifiable gender decadently reclines on a blanket of rabbit fur, daring you to judge.
It is the eyes that haunt one the most. The eyes stare insolently and confrontationally at viewers. They taunt you not to acknowledge them, their issues and the seamy underbelly of human emotions that they express.
The installation in this small, quirky gallery space is extremely effective. The entrance of the gallery has smaller pieces installed on the walls and under stairs, darting, lounging, head-butting, startling visitors and challenging them to seek and decipher the animals around them. But the main exhibition space is darker, more a cave-like den than gallery, and the dramatically lit larger pieces surround the viewer. Here scale counts. The closer these pieces get to human scale, the more humans can identify with their struggles. One soon realizes that this is no petting zoo, but a natural history museum of adult disappointments.
However, all is not grim. One of the first steps to any psychotherapy process is a bald-faced acknowledgment of the problem(s). (I think it is fair to say that Ms. Cavener has this step well covered by now.) Next, is to construct a way out, which she eloquently reveals in “Through an Empty Place (The Fox Emerging from Shadow)”. In this masterful example of trompe l’oeil , a fox decends down a stair, partially out of a large black circle, with both intent and trepidation, as its paw hovers just over the next step.
About the artist: Born in Pasadena, California, in 1972, Beth Cavener received a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Haverford College and a master of fine arts degree in ceramics from the Ohio State University. After a series of artist-in-residence programs in the United States, China, Italy and Japan, Cavener relocated to Helena, Montana, where she built a collaborative studio called Studio 740.
Cavener has had several important solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Australia, and Taiwan, including Flow at the Milwaukee Art Museum (2014), Come Undone at the Claire Oliver Gallery (New York, 2012), Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2012) and From the Ground Up: The 2007 Renwick Invitational at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C., 2007). Her work is in the collections of major art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Design (New York), the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She was awarded the Artist Trust Fellowship in 2009; the Jean Griffith Foundation Fellowship in 2006; the Virginia A. Groot Foundation Grant and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council in 2005; and the American Craft Council’s Emerging Artist Fellowship in 2004.
Watch this stunning video of Cavener at work on her animalistic creations:
Learn more about Zetterquist and his work here.
Do you love or loathe this exhibition from the world of contemporary ceramic art and contemporary ceramics. Share your thoughts in the comments.