Looking into the eyes of impossibility
|Photo Sue Harrison
This altered coyote is one of several Kate Clark has created to question the divide between what is human and what is not.
Sometimes you can’t believe what you think you see
By Sue Harrison
Sculptor Kate Clark is ambitious in her work. She wants nothing less than to re-create the natural order. In so doing she leads viewers to question some core assumptions. Her work, an unnerving combination of taxidermy and psychological dissection, asks but doesn’t try to answer the question of what it means to be human.
Clark, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, will show her recent work at an exhibition at FAWC, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown, that opens from 6 to 8 p.m. March 23 and runs through March 29.
“A lot of people just don’t like it, but those that do, really like it,” she says of the response her work evokes in viewers.
She takes taxidermied animals and puts exquisitely human faces on them. One of her works is a pack of coyotes. When set up for exhibition, posed as if they are in the deep wilderness, they look as if they have suddenly noticed you and looked up. It’s a frozen moment full of non-verbal messages that make the hair on the back of your neck start to lift. And as with any animal encounter, there is the feeling of not knowing what will happen next but being sure that something will and soon.
The added element here is that each of them is looking back at you with a human face, albeit fringed with coyote fur and ears. It’s disconcerting, disorienting.
All assumptions get thrown out the window. Is it an animal? Is it human? Is it some new species? What does it mean? Have animals come up the evolutionary scale? Have we humans slipped down? Has the great divide just dwindled to nothing?
Clark smiles. She’s willing to talk about her work but she’s not saying what it means.
“I appreciate that people go in all directions with it from mythology to futurism,” she says. “But there’s no soap box here. There is such a divide between the comfortable [human] and natural [animal] life.”
She won’t go much further in explaining. She seems, in some ways, as taken and surprised as those who come to see her work.
The concept began in grad school. She had started off at Cornell studying painting and then took a six-year break before going back to art school. When she went back to school at the Cranbrook Academy she realized that painting wasn’t accommodating her conceptual thinking and turned to sculpture. During this time she picked up a book, “Becoming Human,” and was fascinated with the idea that while human faces became more communicative, animal faces did not. Although animals have many non-verbal ways of signaling their intent, those ways do not approach the subtlety that human expression reaches. It may have been that very communicative edge that allowed for the creation of civilization.
“I had always done work about transformation,” she says. “I wanted to see if I could transform [the animal] enough to make it believable. I bought a $250 raccoon head and just changed some features. It wasn’t very effective.”
She’s right. Photos of the raccoon show an animal with a big cheesy human grin. She agrees that her first effort and those that followed were more caricature than character.
She realized she needed to make the entire head more human and to make it subtle in expression. The human face was different precisely because of the ability to convey so much with so many small flickers of change.
Clark wants it to look real and at the same time for the construction element to be obvious. She evolved a technique to do both.
In taxidermy, an animal’s preserved skin is put on a hard foam form available in a variety of poses. To make her faces she takes off the animal’s head and the underlying foam head mount. She inserts a small board into the neck space as an armature and begins to sculpt a head from non-drying clay. When the head is the way she wants it, she takes the animal’s head (skin) and soaks it to make it pliable. She then deconstructs the head and begins to shape the skin onto her newly made form. She nips and cuts, reshaping as she goes. (Imagine taking a thin orange peel and cutting it to fit snugly around a box.) Along the way she decides how much of the fur to shave off, what to leave as a human hairline that will fade into the animal’s own fur. She then hand-stitches the pieces together into their new shape and places them back on the clay form. The stitches are faint but visible. From a distance it looks like a face with a network of scars. To be clear that this is a made image she finishes by pressing straight pins in along side each seam.
“I always use the eyelids of the animal,” she says. “They are really beautiful, those and the eyelashes. Then I have to decide the hairline and the [position of] the ears.”
Difficulties include coming up with a neck size that works with the head and the animal body.
“It’s a lot of balance. Sometimes I think if I just tilt the head to the right half an inch it becomes so much more real.”
She uses rubber eyes that can be squished to some extent, increasing their expressive ability. The eyes, she says, are the most important part of the face for expression. She used to do the eyes first but says if those came out right, she could do anything with the rest of the face. It wasn’t enough, so now she leaves the eyes for last, forcing her to make each part of the face an integral part of the expression she’s trying to achieve.
“I’ll do three or four versions and scrap them before I find the right one,” she says.
For her, the faces are not grotesque though she’s aware others may find them so.
“I find them appealing and like to think about the balance between the cultivated and the natural experience,” she says. “I want the work to sit there [in the space between] what is cultivated and what is functional. Because people focus on the human face, they recognize the face and the fact that an animal body is attached is secondary. That leads to the gut reaction. They react to it, relate and don’t want to react. It allows for more questions. [The viewer] thinks, ‘I have no idea what’s going on in that mind,’ and that’s threatening.”
She is not threatened. These are her creations and she holds them in tender regard.
What does she call them?
The answer only adds to their blurred status.
“I don’t like the word creature. I don’t like to take a science fiction view of them. I just call them he’s and she’s.”
In the arts