Look out the window of Haunch of Venison in New York -- the gallery is still on the 20th floor of Rockefeller Center, though it says it’s looking for more prosaic quarters in Chelsea -- and see the famous Avenue of the Americas, lined with office buildings like geometric beehives. Hard and shiny, this is the machine for modern life.
Turn back inside and find sculptures by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, a group of painstakingly fabricated creatures with hand-painted silicone flesh and real hair. Piccinini’s peculiar vision is fairly well known; she exhibited at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and at Robert Miller Gallery, before moving to Haunch of Venison along with her art-dealer patron Emilio Steinberger, now a director of the gallery.
Piccinini’s themes -- gene splicing, biology and technology, evolution and the end of nature -- are continuous with those of science fiction, from classics like Frankenstein to recent iterations like the movie Splice. But she’s not interested in entertainment. For Piccinini, this dystopian future is not just on the horizon. It’s here.
A litter of three humanoid apelings, with pink skin, big ears and feet with opposing thumbs, lies on a felt mat of human hair. Against the wall sits a young girl with "wolfman disease," dressed in jean shorts and a patterned blouse, cradling a naked, eyeless infant that has tiny feet at one end and cow udders at the other.
Still another humanoid newborn, pink-skinned and red-haired, has flippers rather than hands and a mini-elephant trunk where its nose would be. Other sculptures depict ordinary human children, though not in an altogether ordinary way. In Balasana (2009), a child communes back-to-back with a wallaby, while in The Observer (2010), a young boy perches atop a tall stack of nesting chairs.
In the center of the gallery is something else altogether, a pair of golden motorized scooters that have been animated like a pair of stags, with antlers made of branching arrays of rear-view mirrors. The real cohabits with the fantastic, and the distance between the two is not so far as we might wish.
In an age of desultory avant-garde nihilism, Piccinini’s burden is to care, and care rather a lot. "I’m interested in new life," she says. "And who will be responsible for it." Her works test the bounds of our emotional vulnerability, and of our capacity to feel. In this brave new world, the stranger the creature, the realer our humanity.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.