Hope Atherton can make a mangy piece of fur appear mystical and a shrunken head seem commonplace. With her sculptures and installations, she mixes the exotic and the banal, creating disquietingly mysterious scenes and tantalizing imaginary creatures.
Atherton, who is known as Hopey to her friends, manipulates animal skins, rusted pieces of metal and luxurious bits of fabric to construct what appears to be the mummified corpses of unicorns and long-clawed monsters. The measure of fact versus fiction, or found object versus Atherton's artistic intervention, always remains compellingly unclear in her enigmatic works, which recall the dusty, dimly lit displays in Victorian anthropology museums, such as Pitt Rivers in Oxford, England, or the Muse d'Homme in Paris.
Similarly, her paintings, with their murky shadows, soft brushstrokes and inky palette, seem at first glance to be a type of moody abstraction. But embedded in her images are complex narratives designed to simultaneously evoke pathos and terror. In a painting like Sanctuary, what initially appears to be a curious composition of sepia tones and white accents becomes, after serious viewing, an unnerving scene of a mother monkey defensively cradling her infant.
Atherton, whose deconstructed fashion designs have earned her praise in the pages of magazines ranging from Paper and Interview to Vogue, was born in 1975 in rural Warrenton, Va. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to New York in 1997 where her shamanistic sculpture soon was included in "American Bricolage" at Sperone Westwater in 2000, an exhibition co-curated by artist Tom Sachs and Italian art dealer Gian Enzo Sperone.
Her first solo show, held at White Columns in New York in 2001, included sculptures and dioramas featuring amazons stalked by muscular beasts and dainty Victorian figures on a field trip to view creepy amorphous creatures. Her first show to consist exclusively of her paintings is scheduled for the Patrick Painter gallery in Santa Monica, opening April 3, 2004.
Ana Finel Honigman: Is your use of animal skins political?
Hope Atherton: People make that assumption but I don't feel I am making an aggressively political statement. The wool and feathers I use are domestic and rather mundane farm-animal parts. People react to these materials because of the mood I create. They look at my work and think, "This dead thing is gross."
AFH: Is it gross, or is it frightening? It seems that our culture is so divorced from the reality of death that your work makes people uncomfortable because it contains dead or discarded materials.
HA: Which is exactly why I use domestic animals. These are the animals we eat, wear and never think about. I want people to realize that the skin of a turkey or a turkey's claw is actually very interesting and beautiful. I want you to look at it and think about how big it is and how it would feel gripping you. The fact that it's a turkey and not some endangered, weird, crazily exotic thing makes it so much more intriguing when placed in an unexpected context. The head of a chicken has all these weird voodoo connotations, but a chicken, as just a chicken, is utterly unremarkable.
AFH: Would you say you are interested in banal things because they have unsung histories?
HA: Yes, I'm not interested in old and rotten things, I am interested in objects with a mysterious lineage. I like objects that are layered with collages of emotion, like a little talisman you might keep in your pocket. Maybe it is a little bear claw or something and because you've had it in your jeans for so long, it starts to turn blue and change its appearance. I like the way objects evolve from use.
AFH: Your work is not very nostalgic; instead, it has a slight horror-movie aura. Would you categorize your work as part of the "neo-goth" trend?
HA: No. Today's "gothic" is less about the macabre as a complex literary and artistic tradition, and more about Halloween, something bound up with Ozzy Osbourne, vampire kids and the mainstreaming of goth culture. I am more interested in death as the one truly ubiquitous presence in our all lives; I am inspired by dreams and representations of the subconscious.
AFH: So, you consider your artistic concerns closer to 19th-century Romanticism than Ozzy?
HA: "Romantic" it is certainly preferable to "gothic." Even the "new grotesque" would be better. The things I use aren't really scary -- we have just forgotten how to relate to them. An old broken jawbone, a piece of a wooden chair or a rusted axe are things that are often ignored as "ye olde country flea-market" junk. They seem creepy or mysterious but in actuality they embody something profound about the reality of rural experience. It is only in the context of our postmodern culture, which has no connection to the earth and the agricultural world, that these things might seem "gothic."
AFH: How important is the inherent symbolism of these objects? Isn't your work all about context?
HA: Yes, I think of my art as assembling an old-fashioned cabinet of oddities. If you look at things in that context you would automatically assume they are something scary. An object I show may appear to be a weapon, a mummy-bundle, or even an animal, when actually it is only a piece of old leather.
AFH: How do your paintings relate to your sculptures?
HA: Both are manipulation of things I find and admire in the non-art world. For example, I recently made a painting of a shrunken head from a photograph I had taken in the Musee d' Homme in Paris. In repainting it, I twisted its scale to show more about its inherent meaning and symbolism. I had never just done a portrait of an object like that but in remaking it, I highlighted the way it illustrates all these atavistic connections between religions and human behavior, human instinct, ritual and myth.
AFH: Do you think these connections are really atavistic, aren't they instead culturally relative and altered over time?
HA: Well, the specific relationships between these things have been altered or lost. Now the dominant ethos is to study and observe things but still have no moral or spiritual connection with them. People don't feel genuine empathy with stuff anymore.
AFH: Do you think that is because an over-saturation of imagery and information leaves us desensitized?
HA: Yes, which is why I use found objects and real stories. The seeds of much darker fantasies are embedded in these naturally grotesque things. They feed your imagination and dreams in a much stronger way than artificially constructed works of art or other byproducts of our noisy contemporary culture.
AFH: What objects interest you and where do they come from?
HA: Well, one thing I love is a little mouse a friend sent me after she found it caught dead in a trap. It was completed skinned. Only its skeleton remained in the teeth of the vintage mousetrap. It is completely beautiful to me. I think of it as a perfect object. To recreate it would be silly. Art really is funny thing, because once you categorize something as "art" it becomes totally abstracted. Found things are too often considered just for inspiration. Usually, I decide to use the things that inspire me directly by making them into sculpture.
AFH: Considering the importance of found objects in your sculptures, do you feel like painting is too artificial?
HA: When I first studied painting, I did feel like it was oddly empty activity. I felt like I was making one-dimensional images without substance or soul. They seemed disturbingly divorced from history. I turned to sculpture to see what it would be like to make something real. It really interests me when people attribute to me the found objects I use in my sculptures, because I was always curious to uncover what emotions would be evoked when you knew that the objects were real instead of fabricated. So, rather than painting or sketching the things I like, I use them directly.
AFH: Are viewers less concerned about the origins of your painted imagery?
HA: The experience of viewing sculpture versus viewing painting is radically different. People are fascinated by objects and so they are fascinated by the objects' origin, but drawing is entirely since it comes from a subconscious dream instead of originating in the world. Paintings illustrate moments in transition between conscious thoughts or experiences. I want my paintings to depict dream landscapes, like a sort of floating imprecise past.
AFH: You mean you want to represent timeless scenes?
HA: No, not scenes or object situations but atmospheres and moods. Superstition is present in everyone's life. Magic is omnipresent but our culture suppresses it so we create these moods and feelings we can't articulate. These squelched dialogues come out in strange ways. In my paintings, I don't edit or enhance the strangeness, as they do in horror films or goth rock. Instead, I let it come out as mysterious and emotional as it is in life.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.