OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Anne Lemanski

Copper rod, ink on paper, leather, epoxy.
11 1/2 x 26 x 16 inches

ANNE LEMANSKI's sculptures—stretched "skins" sewn onto welded, copper-rod skeletons—alternatively evoke such practices as taxidermy, trophy hunting and skinning for fashion. Her menagerie of animals includes snakes whose skin appears to be made of butterfly wings, a fox "tattooed" in constellations, a coyote with Mexican Serape "fur" and a slew of birds decked out in various vintage papers. The skins entice visually; some beg to be touched. This honesty about sense pleasure hints at the complicated, problematic nature of the human habit of treating animals as objects. Anne has exhibited widely, including group shows at the Kohler Center for the Arts (2012), The Portland Museum of Art (2011) and the North Carolina Museum of Art (2013), where her work is included in the permanent collection. She has had solo exhibitions at the Imperial Centre for the Arts (2010) in Rocky Mount, Blue Spiral 1 (2011) in Asheville and the Penland Gallery at Penland School of Crafts (2014).  In the winter of 2015, she will be the Windgate Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her work is included in the forthcoming book The Contemporary Art of Nature: Mammals and will be featured in the Danish magazine Textiel Plus in December, 2014. Anne lives in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where she is building a studio constructed from recycled shipping containers.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What role does materiality play in your practice?

Anne Lemanski: Working the way I do allows me to take any material I want and turn it into a sculptural piece. I am a long time lover and collector of vintage paper ephemera. I love the look of old graphics and colors. For a number of my early pieces, I utilized original, vintage paper as the skin. In more recent work, I find myself using more contemporary materials like plastic and fabrics because they speak to the content of the pieces. The little songbirds are the exception; they are vehicles for pure eye-candy, vintage paper. I become obsessed with materials. Whether I just happen to come across material and stash it for future use or if I’m looking for a something specific, I love the hunt of tracking it down. The best example of the cross section of materials I use is my piece titled A Century of Hair, 1900-1990. I used silk, acetate, rawhide, vintage linoleum, etc. Solving the challenges that present themselves when I’m manipulating an unusual material is where all the fun is.

A Century of Hair, 1900-1990
Mixed media on wood stands
Variable dimensions

OPP: Tell us about some of your stashed material that you haven’t found a use for yet.

AL: I seem to have a lot of vintage coloring books and children’s activity books— like “dot to dot"— good bit of paper-doll clothes, stamp collections, these little trading cards that used to come in packs of cigarettes and tea, tons of old maps, and drawers full of vintage photographs. The paper targets I used on a recent piece Camoufleur  had been sitting in my flat file for at least 15 years. I’m glad I didn’t use those on anything else, they were meant for that barn owl.

OPP: Any regular hunting grounds for your materials?

AL: I went to Paris last year and came back with a nice haul of paper goodies. I wish I could go there every year just to buy vintage paper. I found a few stores, and vendors at flea markets that were overwhelming. . . and expensive! And of course they only took cash, so that put a real damper on my spending spree! Ebay has become my favorite hunting ground. It is truly amazing what you can find there. I do still enjoy random junk shops, estate sales and auctions, but because I live in a rural area, those shops and sales are limited. I also like to get a good deal on stuff, it makes it that much better! I’m always looking. Friends keep an eye out for me, too.

Off Duty
Copper rod, embroidery on pantyhose, thread
Life size

OPP: Your process has two distinct parts: building of the copper rod skeletons and creating the skins. Are these processes more alike than we think? Do you always already know what the skin is going to be when you begin to build the skeleton?

AL: The two processes go hand in hand. The building of the copper rod framework dictates how the finished piece will look. I gather images of the animal or object I want to make and visually break it down into line and pattern. Once the skeleton is complete, I then make patterns from the form that will be transferred directly to my final material. I do not always know what material the skin will be, but it certainly helps. Knowing the character of the final skin will dictate how I build the skeleton. Every material responds differently to the contours of the framework; paper differs greatly from plastic, leather or wood veneer. The work I enjoy most is deciding what the skin will be and putting it together. That’s when things really start to take shape, and there is always a surprise in the way the material transforms once it is sewn onto the skeleton.

Monkey Goes to Bollywood
Copper rod, Bollywood lobby cards, artificial sinew
19 x 18.5 x 24 inches

OPP: Monkey Goes to Bollywood (2008) stands out as drastically different from the other animals. Tell us about the choice to use images of human beings on the monkey.

AL: Monkey Goes to Bollywood is the result of an article I read about a man in New Delhi, India, who was sitting on his terrace when four monkeys appeared. The man brandished a stick to fend off the monkeys, lost his balance and fell off the terrace to his death. The monkey represents the Hindu god Hanuman, and Hindu tradition calls for feeding the monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The feeding of and encroachment on the monkey’s wild habitat, has created an overwhelming and aggressive population of monkeys in New Delhi. This is a case that perfectly illustrates the domino effect that occurs when humans exploit animals to satisfy their needs. The exploitation of an animal species usually results in a decrease of population for that species. . . but the opposite is happening in Delhi.

The skin on the monkey is made up of Bollywood—the Hindi film industry in India—lobby cards that I purchased on Ebay from someone in New Delhi (I remember they came rolled up in a white piece of fabric, that was hand sewn shut on each end with red thread). Lobby cards are promotional materials for films, that are displayed in movie theater lobbies. I have seen about a dozen Bollywood films. They are crazy and colorful! I don’t always have a clear-cut reason for using what I do for the skin. I go with my instinct, which is smarter than my actual being. The imagery I used for the monkey just seemed like the perfect fit.

Responsible Spiller
Copper rod, vinyl, artificial sinew.
16 x 23 x 12 inches

OPP: What do you most hope viewers will feel when looking at your menagerie of creatures? Are you disappointed if viewers simply marvel at your technique and humor and don’t walk away thinking about the impact of humans on these species?

AL: I love it when people get the humor! They often don’t. I’m not making work to beat people over the heads with my ideas and opinions, which are certainly present. But I try to keep the work subtle and layered. Along with the content, I still believe in making a beautifully crafted, sculptural object. I’m drawn to formal aesthetics of line, color and pattern. It is usually my construction technique that initially draws people in. Then they take a longer look. It has taken me years to hone my construction skills, so I’m glad when someone appreciates it. Everyone brings their own emotions and politics to a piece, and a connection can happen at many different levels.

Queen Alexandra’s Flight
Digital prints adhered to wood backing, aluminum discs.
150 square feet (as installed in the Penland Gallery)

OPP: Tell us about your recent installation Queen Alexandra’s Flight at Penland Gallery? What made you shift from discreet sculptures to this narrative interaction of creatures?

AL: Queen Alexandra’s Flightdepicts a battlefield, which is the stage for the age-old story of survival. Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world, and it is endangered. I created an army of butterflies and moths to aid her in flight from the attack of insect-eating birds. All of the imagery is digitally scanned and printed, and adhered to a wood backing. Everything was cut out by hand. There are 600 individual pieces in this installation. I have a desire to work on a large scale, and my usual building technique of copper rod skeleton and hand stitched skin prevents me from doing that because of the time-consuming labor. I can’t work fast enough to keep up with the pace of my ideas. So when I’m presented with an opportunity to do something large scale, it gives me the chance to work with different materials and techniques. This particular installation came at a time when I needed a mental break from the usual. Queen Alexandra’s Flight gave me new insight into my work; it will definitely lead to other pieces similar in nature.

To see more of Anne's work, please visit annelemanski.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia recently created a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists runs until October 12, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014.

OPP Art Critics Series: The Child is (Un)dead: Taxidermy Art as Resurrected Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

By Alicia Eler

Slipping the fur skin of a dead animal over a perfectly crafted taxidermy form produces a visual illusion of life, much in the tradition of a trompe l’oeil painting. In traditional taxidermy terms, the relationship between man and animal is that of a hunter conquering nature. The tradition of taxidermy as art dates back to English Victorian-era taxidermist Walter Potter, who created anthropomorphic dioramas of squirrels playing cards in a parlor, a classroom of rabbits seated in rows of long wooden desks, and many other assorted scenarios that more closely resemble illustrations from a Beatrix Potter children’s book than Damien Hirst or Maurizio Cattelan’s respective, well-known animal form artworks. In the works of taxidermy art by AC Wilson and Peregrine Honig discussed here, however, the taxidermy of a young animal (or, in human terms, of ‘children’) locates the work in a tradition much more akin to Walter Potter’s delicate dioramas. Wilson and Honig’s works stand in contrast to the more brash, cynical nature of Hirst and Cattelan’s works by allowing the darker underbelly of childhood fairytale and fantasy to speak through their forms.

Walter Potter was initially inspired to create his taxidermy dioramas by his sister, Jane, who showed him a book of nursery rhymes. He displayed his taxidermy works in his very own Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, located in Sussex, England, which first opened in 1861; by the time of his death in 1914, the museum housed about 10,000 taxidermy objects. Potter’s dioramas embodied a sort of morbidity of childhood, which coincided with the Victorian era’s idealization of childhood, as evidenced by Charles Dickens’ portrayals of children as ‘innocents’—the symbols of all that was “good in the world,” before the onset of adulthood institutions and behaviors.[1] Quite literally speaking, the perceived morbidity of childhood is subject of a vast visual tradition, established and popular throughout England in the late 1800s, known as post-mortem photography. Contemporary artists Peregrine Honig and AC Wilson harken back to these visual representations of dead children in artworks that suggest the absurd, circular proximity of life and death.  

Walter Potter's taxidermic creations via thelovebiscuit.com
Before we discuss these contemporary works by Honig and Wilson, however, it is important to contextualize contemporary taxidermy art. Damien Hirst’s 1991 The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a dead tiger shark floating in formaldehyde, preserved in a glass vitrine for the eyes of onlookers. This work marked a new trend of taxidermic technique as part of ‘high art’ that often had very little to do with childhood and is likened more so to the tradition of taxidermied animals as hunter’s trophy. Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan’s satirical, morbid taxidermic sculptures utilizing horses, dogs, mice and donkeys emerged a few years later, in 1995.

Peregrine Honig's Twin Fawns sculpture consists of taxidermy fetal twin deer curled inside each other, housed in a womb-like vitrine created by the artist. This work imagines the preservation of a state other than life or death—that of resurrection and/or un-birth. The twin fawns occupy an in-between state—since they did die inside their mother’s body they were, in fact, never born, but here they are in their taxidermic after life. Complicating the matter, the twin fawns do have a life online, housed at their internet domain, purchased and maintained by the artist: twinfawns.net. Here they are viewable in their post-mortem-pre-natal flesh, and visitors can read about how they came into being through an accompanying story, written by Honig, in which the artist muses on the nature of the fawns' manmade preservation and our cultural relationship to death and dying:

"We dress death in lilies and bronze the names of our dead sons on walls. we erect altars of toys and hold candlelight vigils to express hope. my twin fawns sleep endlessly on their baby blue block in my studio. the twins never opened their eyes yet their wondrous fatality evokes an acceptable alternative to death."
The fawns’ exaggerated features embody a cartoonish surrealism. I have watched the twin fawns ‘grow up’ in the way that cartoons do—meaning I, the viewer, grow up, as they resemble the same age forever. Psychologically, Honig has constructed them in a fictional, virtual space, available for public viewing, much in the manner of Potter’s taxidermy art dioramas housed at his Museum of Curiosities.

Yet, unlike a Beatrix Potter story, there is no narrative to the fawns. They exist because a man found the carcass of a pregnant deer on the side of the road, and felt compelled to cut it open. Upon doing so, he discovered that the deer had twin fawns inside of her belly, and decided to taxidermy them both. Honig later discovered the twins at a mom ‘n pop oddities store in Kansas City, and went back repeatedly until the owner agreed to let her purchase them. The previous owner, he told her, returned the fawns after repeatedly having the same dream about them. Honig recalled the dream to me:
“It’s a dream that you are in a field and they are running around,” she says. “The dream does not change, it’s just that you have these two sidekicks with you. They are more like a shadow than something that is making noise. [In the dream,] they are neutral objects.”
The shop owner sold the fawns to Honig with the agreement and understanding that she would not return them. Every night for the first few weeks after she bought them, Honig notes that she had the same dreams about them as the previous owner. Nowadays she still dreams about the fawns, but less frequently.

Peregrine Honig, Twin Fawns via twinfawns.net

In AC Wilson's taxidermy animal series (Appear and disappear (2012), Rut (2012) and What happens when you die (2011), the artist uses a rabbit, a plethora of chicks and a single fawn to discuss loss. In Appear and disappear, a taxidermy rabbit sits atop a magician's stand next to a picture frame that has been turned upside down. The piece references the ‘hat-trick,’ in which a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, astounding onlookers. In Wilson's rendition, no such hat exists, and the rabbit's taxidermy form, instead, is the visual illusion used to reference human mortality. 

AC Wilson, What happens when you die, taxidermy fawn, bed, cremation tag (2011) via ac-wilson.com

AC Wilson, What happens when you die, taxidermy fawn, bed, cremation tag (2011) via ac-wilson.com

In his artist statement, Wilson considers his work in relation to ideas of loss:

"My work deals with loss. This includes feelings of abandonment, worry, and reflection. Materials are chosen based on our general awareness of them, including any references to ideas or narratives they may possess.”
Rut features a grouping of taxidermy ducklings arranged in a circle on top of a clean, white pillar. There is an absurd, existential quality to these tiny birds, who are forever marching in a circle going nowhere fast. Maurizio Cattelan employs similar humor in his piece Bibididobidiboo (2012), in which a taxidermy squirrel lays slumped over a tiny table, empty shot glass nearby, a gun resting on the floor as though dropped from his tiny paws. This humorous take on suicide, or on the way we use anthropomorphism to discuss subjects deemed morbid, is ambiguous enough to be open-ended, and funny enough to make light of death.  Similarly, the chicks in “Rut” march on to nowhere, suggesting a similarly absurd act of futility.

"Appear and disappear"
taxidermy rabbit, picture, magician's stand

taxidermy ducklings

In Wilson’s work What happens when you die, a single fawn stands atop a bed, the kind it might’ve had had it been a human child. The fawn’s ears are alert, and its big, black eyes are childlike and wide-open. Nearby, a circular black cremation tag hangs from one of the walls. This subtle anthropomorphism of the fawn nudges viewers into imagining someone they love dying quietly in the middle of the night, only to be reawakened in this animal form.  It might be the afterlife of the post-mortem childhood death, a visual representation of what would a have been a post-mortem photograph of a child during the Victorian era. The tiny fawn straightens its legs, digging its shiny black hooves into the soft white mattress. Its glass eyes reflect the white gallery light—like a ghost or, perhaps, a long-exposure mirror of death itself.

"What happens when you die"
taxidermy fawn, bed, cremation tag

[1]Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, “The Victorians,” pg. 149

Editor: Danny Orendorff
Chicago, Illinois
May 14, 2013

This is the first post in the OPP ART CRITICS for the OPPBlog. Look for our next installment on 5/28!