Helen Altman: Half-Life
Nature shows itself to us through many avatars: pet and predator, Arcadia and Inferno. Knowing the difference is an urgent matter; however, matching the phenomenon of nature to its representation is rife with pitfalls. Helen Altman’s exhibition at Moody Gallery exploits such discrepancies in thought-provoking ways.
Helen Altman, Word and Animals, 2003-2011; installation of 195 burned dictionary pages; approximately 116 x 98 1/4" installed; courtesy the artist and Moody Gallery.
Of the four elements that make up nature in classical thought, fire—as opposed to earth, water and air—is the leitmotif of Altman’s exhibition. The works here show fire under control, bent to a specific purpose. Words and Animals (2003-2011) is a series of 195 dictionary pages arranged in a 13-by-15 grid that takes up most of the wall; Altman burned an animal silhouette in the center of each in a kind of inverted stenciling. The charred edges of each animal-shaped hole appear carefully controlled in their precision. In Line of Fire (2011), a wall painting of a beaver dam holds a string of flickering light bulbs attached around the painting’s horizon line; if you squint, its squiggled skeins resemble a distant but approaching forest fire. On another wall, thirteen of Altman’s well-known torch drawings depicting large birds and mammals hang unframed. This process of scorching a figure into wet paper yields a paradox of permanence and transience: though quickly made, the image is irreversible. Two Deer Reflecting (2011) displays a forest fire scene on a rotating cylinder, illuminated from the inside. The imperiled deer, which inevitably recall Bambi, serve as a figure for the fascination and terror that fire evokes in humans too.
In all these works, Altman either reduced fire to a toy simulation, as in the flicker bulbs, or tamed fire to her own purposes, as in the torch drawings and dictionary silhouettes. Natural fires, of course, are not like that at all. It may have been only a coincidence that the smoke from devastating wildfires still hung over Bastrop County as I drove from Central Texas to see this exhibition; be that as it may, those summer fires were a scary reminder that nature does what it wants. Perhaps Altman’s comic treatment of fire is a way of figuring her work’s own fictionality, of making art be about art-making. This issue appears again in Altman’s treatment of animals.
Helen Altman, Two Deer Reflecting, 2011; vintage motion lamp, light bulb, wall text and miscellaneous elements; 10 1/4 x 6 x 6"; courtesy the artist and Moody Gallery.
While the animal kingdom is of course replete with creatures of every description, from the fearsome to the indifferent, the species depicted here lean decidedly toward the cute. A spotted deer among the torch drawings turns up again on Words and Animals, Spotted Deer (2002), one of the two inkjet-printed quilted poplin moving blankets. The wooden birds and bears in Pecking Order, Anthem and Sometimes the Bear (all 2011), three toy record players turned into mad-cuckoo-clock assemblies of kinetic art, are positively adorable. The canine in Blue Dog (2009), the other moving blanket, looks like a very good dog indeed. I wouldn’t blame anyone who simply wished to enjoy these animals’ cuteness, and yet, there must be more. Could this be a reminder that animals have never ceased to serve as screens for human projection? The rich yet artificial texture of the moving blankets and Blue Dog’s blue tint in particular, are reminders of their own artificiality; but of course the artificiality doesn’t stop the image of the cute dog from appealing to us on an instinctive level. Likewise, the white-tailed deer isn’t just a cloven-hoofed and four-toed herbivorous mammal but a creature that can elicit a hugely emotional response when made the subject of a dramatic animated film.
All these works hint at the kind of encounter one can have with something wild—a fire or a strange species—while at the same time suggesting that efforts to encapsulate this encounter pictorially will collapse into a kind of artificiality. To be sure, this artificiality (see Disney's Bambi) can be appealing. It would be a mistake, though, to see that as the bottom line of these works. Their richness is in the suggestion that, behind the artificiality, lies something fugitive but real.