“It was in the black mirror of Anarchism that Surrealism first recognized itself.”
The timeliness of Elizabeth McGrath’s exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery strikes a seemingly eerie chord, given our president elect’s invocation of a flawed nostalgia and desire to return to a “better time.” Its title, “Dark Howl,” is a direct reference to Allen Ginsberg’s prophetic 1959 poem which attacked our nation’s justice and health systems for stunting the creativity and genius of a marginalized community encompassing forward thinkers whose involvement with drugs, homosexuality and political outrage were deemed deviant by what Ginsberg defined as the “machine.”
Ginsberg’s poem also underscored the injustices, discrimination and abuse endured by those who fell outside the mainstream. While some persevered, many were driven to madness, such as Ginsberg’s friend, Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while he himself was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and to whom he later dedicated his poem.
Like the misfits, nonconformists and rebels that Ginsberg characterized in “Howl,” Elizabeth McGrath’s sculptures appear like mutants whose innocence has been compromised by a conservative populous, intolerant of individual expression. Take for instance The Transmutation of Elden & Oliver (2016), a two-headed unicorn that simultaneously conveys whimsy and distress. While McGrath’s depiction embodies a childlike innocence characterized by its porcelain-like body and brilliant doe eyes, the piece also invokes a sinister aura. Not only does the folkloric creature have two heads, but its elongated torso houses a diorama in which a microscopic unicorn, neither blemished nor deformed, grazes peacefully in a green pasture.
Bunny Octopus(2016) also channels a similar subtlety that imbues a disquieting dichotomy. The upper half of the sculpture portrays the front paws and head of a rabbit whose neck is adorned by a white ribbon, tied in a neat bow. While this initial image invokes the comfort and security that stuffed animals offer young children, the sculpture’s posterior leaves viewers conflicted. This is because the rabbit’s anterior is supported by five octopus arms riddled with suction cups rather than two salubrious hind legs and a cotton-like tail. In addition, the rabbit’s expression seems to convey discontent and/or trepidation, indicative of resentment or repressed anger.
The nexus of “Dark Howl” is The Hunter’s Folly (2016). Adorned with 50,000 Swarovski Crystals, the stunning piece depicts a three-headed fawn whose hooves, ears and eyes are embellished in gold leaf. An undeniable eye-catcher, McGrath’s portrayal of the woodland creature aptly captures the animal’s frangible vulnerability in its initial hours of life. Its stance invokes Walt Disney’s depiction of Bambi and his first attempt at standing just hours after birth. Like the animated newborn, McGrath’s interpretation appears with legs splayed to support its trunk, neck and head. The expressions on each of the fawn’s faces, however, are what incite viewers to see the work as more than just spectacle. While one appears content, the other two share emotions of both caution and pain, perhaps foretelling of a precarious future.
A true surrealist, McGrath leverages her work to illuminate the fine line between the sound and irrational, the conventional and unusual, the rational and insane. While we, as a country, have made great strides since Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” McGrath’s work serves as an apt reminder of the conflict that still accompanies intolerance during this pivotal time when our nation hovers over vast divisions.
“Dark Howl” runs through December 10 at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles. For more information, please visit the gallery’s website at www.coreyhelfordgallery.com