Although it goes against my grain in a visual arts review to start with the verbiage surrounding an exhibition, it seems to be the best way to approach “American Primitives: Todd Slaughter” at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery (his second there, the first being in 1996-1997). I was searching for something to explain the title but I can’t say I found it despite the abundance of verbiage.
First there is Slaughter’s own statement printed on the Gallery Guide handout:
The evolution of American society has been influenced by issues of personal identity and social/geographic barriers, sometimes manifested as self-imposed isolation. Extreme manifestations of self-isolation, as well as a romantic perception of nature-as-sanctuary, are reflected within this art installation.
His statement was expanded in Michael Goodson’s essay “Bad Blood”, published in the catalog that accompanied the “American Primitives” exhibition when it was first presented in 2012 at the Canzani Center Gallery at the Columbus College of Art and Design.
Todd Slaughter’s work in “American Primitives” explores the relationship between the American Transcendentalist movement’s declarations of self reliance and individualism and hate groups isolated within this country’s seemingly bucolic rural landscape. It looks into the myth of domestic security and how we attempt to make this mythology the foundation of our cultural identity.
Goodson goes on to describe the works in “American Primitives”:
. . . a cycle of sculptural tableaux, which calls attention to misapplied romantic perceptions of nature, of the country’s founding, and of its expansion as driven by the assertion of Manifest Destiny. Slaughter points up parallels between American individualism and isolationism, seeing the phenomenon of hate group members and individual survivalists living in isolated sites as distinctly American in character.
Goodson traces Slaughter’s interest in these ideas and the object vocabulary he uses to express them to around 2000 when Slaughter and his wife purchased 23 acres of undeveloped land near Laurelville, OH, in the Hocking Hills. Their intent was to create a retreat in a pristine landscape à la Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. But this lasted only three years.
(T)here was a palpable hostility toward outsiders and government, and a corresponding preoccupation with protection of their space. Slaughter’s retreat, as it turned out was no Walden.
The Slaughters’ southern neighbor hunted on their land, leaving blinds and animal parts. To the north was a self-confessed member of the KKK who “once threatened to ‘bury the black ass’ of a disrespectful land surveyor.”
To the east the neighbor allowed the gas company to clear-cut 10 hilly acres of trees overlooking a stream. And the prior owner of their property was “an isolationist serving jail time for shooting the KKK neighbor over a property-line dispute.”
The second essay in the American Primitives catalog is a reprint of the 2011 New York Times Magazine article “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance” by novelist, memoirist, book reviewer, journalist, and instructor at Bennington College Benjamin Anastas (b. 1969). Its mere inclusion clarifies Slaughter’s view of Emerson’s essay.
Anastas’s first encounter with Emerson’s influential, but easily misinterpreted essay, in his view, occurred when still a teen attending a private school for boys. His teacher of early American literature “had merely fallen under the spell, like countless others before and after, of the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon.”
Anastas continues, “. . . and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview.”
The misreading or misapplication of Emerson’s ideas of the value of self reliance has resulted in making “the swagger of a man’s walk . . . his measure, and Americans’ right to love ourselves before any other that trumps all,” Anastas concludes.
All of this provides a context for the exhibition, although much of the work, made between 2002 and 2014, exists outside those parameters. However, the newest work addresses just this misinterpreted idea of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s concepts of self-reliance.
In Talking Turkeys, two highly realistic silicone automatons, modeled on Wild Eastern turkeys, represent Thoreau and Eric Rudolph, who bombed Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 summer Olympics, killing one and wounding 111 others. They carry on a three-minute conversation about individualism and self-reliance from their respective viewpoints, separated by more than a century.
In Slaughter’s note about the dialogue, he draws some parallels between the two, including that both were/are naturalists and were/are called anti-government anarchists, although both deny that. And, of course, both retreated from society. Thoreau chose to spend two years, two months, and two days alone on Walden Pond, but Rudolph roamed the Appalachian wilderness for five years, evading apprehension for the Atlanta and other bombings. He was able to hide from authorities because local sympathizers aided him. He was even mythologized in two country songs.
Slaughter considers the 2012 Walden Woods “the touchstone of this exhibition, drawing parallels between American individualism and isolationism.” He wrote this in the 2012 catalog, and it is reprinted in the handout:
Walden Woods suggests a romantic perception of nature and the misapplication of Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas of identity as an endorsement of radical, self-centered worldviews. . . . An often-applauded aspect of the American character has been the perceived righteousness of the self-reliant individual roughing it, toughing it, and loneing it.
The sculpture is comprised of three trees, their foliage made of three different broadly striped fabrics — red and black; evergreen and black with a thin stripe of red; and stripes of alternating red, black, and Kelly green. They could be 3-D renderings of a child’s drawing of trees or a vastly enlarged (the sculpture measures 9’ 6” x 8’ diameter) conglomeration of cells. Slaughter also provides a lawn chair for leisurely observation. Only its title ties it to Thoreau. Not overburdened with “meaning,” it is a delightful work of art.
One 2009 sculpture is intensely personal and tangentially connected to the concept of self-reliance: My EMF Comfort Zone. It’s an odd tent (there is an opening large enough to crawl into the shelter) with rudimentary facial features – a mouth opened in an o shape, eyes covered by blank oval lenses, and circular forms on the sides to suggest ears. External aluminum arcs support the structure. They are attached to the copper-plated fabric with bungee-like cords.
From a distance, they look like arrows piercing the form, so my immediate thought was of the martyring of St. Stephen. My second was about the igloos made by the Italian artist Mario Merz (1925-2003). And then I turned to Slaughter’s explanation.
My EMF Comfort Zone is a prototypical sleeping/meditating retreat to be used inside the home, developed from an optical scan of the user’s head. In this case, the user is myself. The work is an idiosyncratic gesture of self-protection, meant as a protecting inner liner, a last level of defense, a shell with in (sic) a shell.
The title comes from the copper-plated fabric that “was developed for shielding electronic equipment from the electromagnetic field (EMF) energy that accompany electrical devices.”
I then took a look at Merz’s igloos, iconic forms in his sculptural repertoire. His first was made in 1968, and he continued to make them throughout his career. He used a variety of materials including metal, glass, slate, cloth, earth, neon lights, wood, putty, fruit, paint, wax, even an antelope head. Merz called them “the ideal organic shape . . . both a world and a small house.”
Art historian Zdenek Felix in the essay “Crocodiles, Owls, and Numbers. Mario Merz’s Painting” for the 1995 catalogue accompanying Merz’s solo exhibition at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Contemporanea in Trento, wrote, “One can consider it (the igloo) a mental living place and refuge, as a place of encounter and communication, or as a cupola – and in that, as an archaic parable of the universe.”
My impulse to turn to Merz was correct. I didn’t need to read Slaughter’s explanation, but, like in all of his other work, it was enlightening. And, as resistant as I always am to read text to understand work, believing looking at the work should be all I need to “get” it, I was compelled to read the material here and then go chase down more information.
That can be a “good thing,” but it probably discourages most viewers.
The 2002 Domestic Fortress, 11’ x 5’ 6” x 6 6”, succeeds on a purely formal level as well as conceptually without knowing Slaughter’s exact rationale behind it. But a quote from Goodson illuminates it: “ While Slaughter’s work meditates on self reliance gone haywire in rural America, it also looks into how American isolationism manifests itself in the seemingly innocuous form of perceived safety in suburban communities.”
A compound of buildings, a little smaller than dollhouses, is fashioned of translucent polycarbonate in a highly oxygenated blood-red or carmine color. Slaughter describes them as an “outer-suburban home farm defensive complex of buildings.” But it’s a false sense of security since the translucent buildings are easily penetrated visually. The buildings are presented on a huge slowly rotating cake stand made up of silicone berries. Outsized and nasty looking taxidermied swan/ducks defend the compound. However, their menacing attitude is undermined by one that could be a stand-in for the AFLAC duck – an unintended consequence I’m sure.
Domestic Fortress works. Slaughter’s craftsmanship is impeccable, and his shifts in scale are just right. The buildings are smaller than the fowl, and the fowl are smaller than the cake platter. It’s a wonderful play with scale.
Not everything in the exhibition relates to security or the perversion of Emersonian ideals. And sometimes Slaughter’s comments are unhelpful, notably the four figurative tableaux gathered under the “series” title “Thrones of Wisdom.” For Slaughter, they offer “a circular logic of the characters’ implied plans and actions as being predestined and unquestionable.”
The title Throne of Wisdom fits only one of the four easily. It was directly inspired by polychromed 11th-century Madonna and Child wood statues, which are referred to as “‘thrones of wisdom.’ Mary is understood as the Mother of God and the Seat of Wisdom,” according to Slaughter.
The other three sculptures have no visual linkage to the medieval thrones of wisdom as far as I can see. But no matter, they can stand on their own formally. And no verbiage is required to puzzle out their meaning. For myself, I see the black-colored and bland-looking, unindividuated, men as alienated from yet trapped by society.
There are two videos, both from 2002: Safe Alone and Family Dinner. As resistant as I am about this medium, they held my attention.
In the end, Slaughter is an adept craftsman, sensitive sculptor, and intellectually challenging, presenting tableaux that are tantalizingly obscure.
By: Karen S. Chambers
“Todd Slaughter: American Primitives,” Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, Aronoff Center for the Arts 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, www.westonartgallery.com. Through August 24. Sun., noon-5 p. m., Tues.-Sat., 10 a. m.-5:30 p. m., Open late on Procter & Gamble Hall performance evening.