Sculp­tures blur lines of hu­man­ity

Pic­cinini’s odd crea­tures dis­com­fort at Hos­felt Gallery

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Charles Des­marais

We know at heart that we are an­i­mals, but we con­ceal our beast­li­ness from oth­ers, and even from our­selves. We mask our im­pulses, rit­u­al­ize our bod­ily func­tions, tame our hairi­ness.

The most dis­turb­ing as­pect of Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini’s hor­rid sculp­tures of an­i­mal­ized hu­mans — and they are de­cid­edly that, and not the other way around — is not that they are cross-bred. We can imag­ine, for what­ever warped or wicked rea­son, de­sign­ing a crea­ture to our cul­ture’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions. What we could not abide would be the loss of our own prim shells of seem­li­ness.

“In­ter-nat­u­ral,” the Aus­tralian artist’s ex­hi­bi­tion at Hos­felt Gallery through Jan. 26, con­cen­trates on the most an­i­mal­is­tic of her work. The ma­chine hy­brids we saw in her last show at the gallery were eas­ier to pull off, for the sim­ple rea­son that in­dus­trial de­sign­ers have been tak­ing cues from na­ture at least since they started adding tail fins to au­to­mo­biles.

In the cur­rent out­ing, the artist whiffs as of­ten as she con­nects. The piece that greets view­ers as they en­ter the gallery, “The Builder” (2018), imag­ines a small child’s body with beaver-like teeth and tail. One can pic­ture the work as an an­i­ma­tion model for the next Pixar pro­duc­tion: just so cheeky as to at­tract at­ten­tion, mawk­ish enough to sell lots of tick­ets.

Not that elid­ing the sup­posed bound­aries be­tween fine art, film and the amuse­ment park is nec­es­sar­ily a zero-sum com­pe­ti­tion. One can find many cases where one field has fed the growth of oth­ers. It works best, though, when nour­ish­ment is the point.

“The Field” fills the gallery’s main room with 2,000 white, crab-like forms on white stems. It’s In­sta­grammably im­pres­sive, at first. A sec­ond look, how­ever, re­veals the flower heads to be more plas-

tic than preter­nat­u­ral, with ar­tic­u­lated joints that snap in the way a doll’s arms do, for va­ri­ety.

A path­way cut through “The Field” pre­vents our wan­der­ing and leads us to a fig­ure. Back turned to the viewer, it could be mis­taken at first for a live woman, but as we come around to face her, she is still. In her arms a fleshy, flabby ju­ve­nile of in­de­ter­mi­nate species nuz­zles her breast.

It is called “The Bond” (2016), and it is noth­ing more than sil­i­cone and fiber­glass, with store-bought cloth­ing and im­planted hair. We want to treat it as some­thing else. The baby’s eyes are limpid, its nostrils damp. The pointed ears at the top of its head poke through soft blond locks, as the woman touches her cheek to its crown.

Who could be in­sen­si­tive to the pathos of so grossly mis­matched a pair? How could we not ex­tend our sym­pa­thy? Whether the bond be­tween them was forged in a mo­ment of pas­sion or vi­o­lence, or it is a com­pas­sion­ate link be­tween res­cuer and foundling, the ap­par­ent bi­o­log­i­cal trans­gres­sion could not be their fault.

A pair of ur­sine crea­tures huddle in a tent like lovers on the run, sur­vivors of some cat­a­clysm. They em­brace but are lost in their own rever­ies. Their fear fills the space, the canvas en­clo­sure a frag­ile pro­tec­tion from the bar­ren en­vi­ron­ment that is the gallery out­side and, by im­pli­ca­tion, the world.

Their naked­ness is not in­ci­den­tal. Most of Pic­cinini’s char­ac­ters are sim­i­larly sex­u­al­ized, in the age-old tra­di­tion of hor­ror tales.

At the same time, for all their obese im­pu­rity, these are crea­tures fresh from the lab, never ag­ing, un­scarred by the tri­als of their ex­is­tence. Pic­cinini, of course, is the de­signer of their ap­pear­ance, and also of their fate — the sin­gle per­son re­spon­si­ble for their be­ing.

In a video pro­duced by the Queens­land Art Gallery and Gallery of Mod­ern Art, she plays a dewy in­no­cent. Star­ing into the cam­era, she in­tones, “I imag­ine that per­haps these are the only two crea­tures of their kind,” as if she were not the one who loosed them upon us.

The sculp­tures she makes are not crea­tures she has come across some­where, but her own propo­si­tions. Sure, a nov­el­ist might do the same, but what would we say of an au­thor who could not control the mon­sters she cre­ates? Charles Des­marais is The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s art critic. Email: cdes­[email protected] sfchron­i­cle.com. Free weekly news­let­ter: http://bit.ly/Art­guy Re­views.

Peter Hen­nessey

Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini’s “The Loafers” (2018)

Hos­felt Gallery pho­tos

Above, a pair of ur­sine crea­tures huddle in a tent like lovers on the run in Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini’s “The Cou­ple.” Left, a young woman com­forts a not-quite-hu­man baby in Pic­cinini’s “The Bond” (2018).

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