This Thursday, an exhibit called Chimera opened at Kettle Art in Deep Ellum for a run that ends June 23. The four contributing artists chose the title to connect the pieces in this show and guide an understanding of the artwork. But "chimera" is a word rich for interpretation.
In Greek mythology, a chimera is a goat-snake-lion that breathes fire. Now the term describes any creature that’s a conglomeration of different animals. But a chimera can also refer to an illusion or an unachievable dream.
In fact, only one of the artists focuses solely on the monstrous aspect of a chimera. Each of Erin Curry’s ornately framed pencil-and-ink drawings combines the innocence of flowers with animals. Curry describes her series as “what nature could do without any kind of restrictions.” An orchid evolves to appear like a butterfly, a snake’s tail turns into flowers. In these drawings, animals take advantage of the attractiveness of flowers to draw prey; flowers take on the appearance of creatures to fend off predators.
The creatures certainly feel monstrous, carnivorous and uncontrollable, but Curry also set constraints upon herself. A key part of this series is the ornate, vintage frames that Curry worked the art into. The frames contain the wildness of Curry’s creations while also creating a contrast between the man-made beauty of a carved frame and the wild, exaggerated beauty of nature and myth.
Nature doesn’t always need exaggeration to shock us with its monstrosity.
Janae Corrado has two series of work in the exhibition. The first is a collection of magnificent bugs painted on wooden triangles. An initial look at the insects makes us think that they, like Curry’s works, are fabrications or exaggerations of nature. But all are real creatures. She calls them “tiny bugs that people just want to squish,” bugs that “we’re exterminating faster than they can reproduce.”
These insects are chimeras because their beauty is elusive, but Corrado contests this elusiveness by “using art to highlight something you wouldn’t be able to see with the naked eye.” The human inability to instantly see the beauty of insects is resulting in their extinction. By capturing them in artwork, Corrado is pinning down a real but unattainable beauty.
Corrado’s second series is more unreal. Portraits of “femme fatales” ethereally intertwined with animals show the illusory aspect of a chimera. A young girl stands in the woods with discarded cicada shells in her hair and a live, vibrant green cicada on her shoulder. The painting is inspired by the Narnian woods that once surrounded Corrado’s childhood home. The woods have since been destroyed and replaced by a housing development. The beauty of these paintings was once real, but it’s becoming harder to find in real life.
The desire to capture unseen beauty carries on in Katrina Rasmussen’s paintings of Big Bend.
“Not only does the land there have many faces, but it seemed particularly relevant because of the fabricated border crisis we have right now,” Rasmussen says to explain the chimeric nature of her work. Rasmussen’s art makes us confront the myths we believe both about the desert and about our political climate.
The desert seems like a monster, like a chimera. Some of the plants can kill you. But as Rasmussen’s work shows us, it contains more beauty than seems possible.
Similarly, the news often fills us with despair regarding the southern border. Rasmussen talks about Boquillas, a tiny Mexican village rich with cultural and natural beauty. The increase of border control is a constant threat to the town, which depends largely on tourism.
Rasmussen says, “I wanted to show the beauty of the place but I always wanted to inject something a little harsher.” This harshness is present both in the danger of the desert and the political criticism implicit in her works.
The paintings themselves are also chimeras. Rasmussen works with plaster, an incredibly difficult and unpredictable medium. “You really have to work plaster. It takes a lot of time, and it requires muscular energy. You have to work to get out into the desert, and the plaster is like that as well,” she says.
Paxton Maroney’s photography series also features the beauty of the desert. Her work is full of chimeras. How does a photographer capture the contents of her daydreams on film? The answer, for Maroney, is the program Adobe Photoshop. Often, even she doesn’t know why her photographs end up the way they do. “Why are these cacti orange?” she asks with her series of orange-tinted desert landscapes. The surreal hue of the photos shows the metaphysical intimacy of Maroney’s journey deep into nature.
This intimacy translates directly to her style of landscape photography.
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“I shoot landscapes the way I shoot portraits,” she says. Maroney captures in plants what she captures in people. This also brings a chimeric aspect to her work: by turning landscapes into portraits, she creates a hybrid of human and plant. To look at this series and see mere desert scenery is perhaps a mistake. Both through her style of photography and the editing she does afterward, Maroney transforms her inanimate subjects into models.
These artists give chimera a nuanced significance. We do see monsters in these pieces. Sometimes the monsters are terrifying hybrid animals, and sometimes the monsters are us, destroying beautiful creatures and landscapes. But we also see beauty that escapes us (usually, it seems, because we are afraid of it) and beauty that’s inexpressible in reality.
Although we use the idea of a chimera to view this artwork, the artwork in turn makes us ask what a chimera really is. Should we actually be afraid of the monster, or is our fear of it obscuring our ability to see its beauty?
Kettle Art Gallery, 2650 Main St. (Deep Ellum)