Adam Stennett is the Sir Edward Landseer of despised urban wildlife. He lovingly paints mice and rats scudding through the tight spaces, household appliances and dark corners that they prefer, close to us.
While an allegory starring a mouse suggests Beatrix Potter-like tender sentimentality, it is hard to feel sympathy for a rat. Rats are too intimate with urbanites. They are near us, eat our waste, survive on our effluvia and infiltrate our architecture. Our attempts to stop them only make them stronger, yet they are similar enough to us physiologically to act as bellwethers of disease, as in Camus' The Plague. In Stennetts paintings, his slick, oily, ropey-tailed protagonists, whether mice or rats, are gallant and sympathetic without being cute. The spaces they occupy might be recognizable as ours, but Stennett shows them valiantly claiming the territory through their courageous and clever maneuvering.
Alaskan-born Stennetts first solo exhibition of paintings and an installation involving clear plastic pipes and 20-30 live mice was held at the 31 Grand Gallery in Williamsburg Brooklyn in April.
Ana Finel Honigman: Would you consider your paintings nature scenes or are these more like realistic fables were the mice and rats are stand-ins for humans?
Adam Stennett: I wouldnt say the mice and rats are necessarily characters but they are a visual metaphor which allows me to explore ideas about human behavior and our feeling of being divorced from nature.
AFH: But mice and rats are the only kind of nature we arent divorced from at all.
AS: True, we are definitely married. In my paintings, I am illuminating things we choose not to notice, like our constant proximity to rodents and their role in our lives as urban wildlife. At 31 Grand, I ran pipes across the ceiling mimicking the gallerys architecture. The idea was for people not to notice the mice running overhead. The installation allowed people to walk into the gallery, look at the paintings and walk under the pipes where thirty mice were scurrying only two feet over everyones heads without attracting attention. When many people got to the door and looked back, they realized that there was a lot happening around them that they had just not been aware of at all.
AFH: It is also interesting that the paintings include everyday objects seen at the scale of a mouses vision.
AS: The paintings direct attention to the little things most people ignore or deny, even though paying attention would be wiser. Mice and rats are a lot like humans and we would be much better off if we paid attention to how they live.
AFH: Sure, its never a good sign when the rats start jumping ship.
AS: Right. Nature constantly sends out signals and we choose to ignore them.
AFH: Do you want to evoke empathy for the rodent?
AS: Empathy is important in any context. Mice and rats are amazing creatures. They are survivors. They are humble but they are also clever and wily.
AFH: There have been studies detailing the fact that rodents features are antithetical to any human standard of beauty while Koala Bears, who have terrible personalities, are considered cute because they have baby-faces.
AS: I think it is the tail more than the face that pushes peoples buttons.
Personally, I think mice are very beautiful when they are healthy. Part of what interests me is the resistance people feel towards having any emotional association with mice and rats. As an artist, I like painting them because this imagery gives people a little shove out of their comfort zone. That slight shock forces people to take a second look at things once they have gotten their bearings back again. I feel that that initial disquietude inspires people to think more critically about the paintings and redirect their focus to things they often dont consider.
AFH: Rats and mice have somewhat different reputations. Mice are often depicted in popular imagery as cute and resourceful whereas rats are always seen as sinister, even evil. Do people tend to respond differently to individual paintings when they think they are looking at an image of a mouse or a painting of a rat?
AS: The odd thing is that though all the models for my paintings are actually all mice, I choose them because they potentially resemble rats and that ambiguity is important in the paintings. People tell me the craziest stories about their experiences with mice and rats. People will recount tales of finding mice sitting on their headboards watching them sleep. I have found apples I was painting at night totally eaten to the core by morning.
AFH: Personally, I would rather have a burgler in my apartment than a rat.
AS: You probably have had a rat in your apartment and not known it. Living in New York City means they are ubiquitous. You can never get rid of them. We are linked to them because they are everywhere we are and they follow us regardless of our opinion of them as fellow creatures. With all our technology, we have never learned how to control them. They will always be there. We just need to learn how to co-exist.
AFH: Some of your imagery is of the ways we have learned to exploit that bond.
AS: When you look at medical history, mice and rats have been key components in science for the past 100-150 years. They have the reputation of carrying-disease but in the last century they have also been central to curing diseases as well.
AFH: You make a great advocate against species-profiling rodents.
AS: In painting tradition, rats and mice symbolize mortality and decay. They will chew and destroy anything left in their proximity. And, I have done a lot of research on folklore across the globe and in almost every literary tradition where rats play a role; they are always depicted as possessing the same attributes. They are shown outsmarting other creatures, tricking them and surviving. In competitions with bigger animals, the larger creature almost always loses. They are fantastically smart.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.