In "Frozen!" at Vermillion Gallery, Seattle artists Michael Alm and Robin Crookall explore the world of hunting trophies with a mock solemnity that has both its campy aspects and a genuine mythic resonance.
You often see unusual things in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
But a gallery window occupied by a life-size cardboard/tissue-paper polar bear with slightly “bloodied” jaws still counts as something quite out of the ordinary — especially when it’s rearing from a curving cage of gory whale bones (also made of cardboard and tissue paper).
Michael Alm’s and Robin Crookall’s installation, “Polar Bear and Whale,” is the centerpiece of their joint Vermillion Gallery exhibit, “Frozen!” But it’s far from the only striking element in the two Seattle artists’ show.
With macabre humor and impressive technique, “Frozen!” alternates between Crookall’s spooky photographs and Alm’s surreal hunting-lodge-worthy sculptures.
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In their artists’ statement, Alm and Crookall say their “synthetic taxidermy” (no real animals are used in Alm’s creations or Crookall’s photos) is intended to raise questions about “our relationship with nature, and what it means to turn creatures into trophies.” Alm adds, “This is supposed to be a fun show, but full of death, decay, preservation, and wildness!”
Some of his pieces — “Common Goat,” “North American Cougar,” “Fallow Deer” — are skulls impeccably crafted from strips of poplar, walnut and other woods. Others use synthetic fur to create lifelike effects. “Daisy Carbine Model No. 10: ‘The Arctic Ranger,’ ” for instance, depicts a bear of uncertain variety. (Alm acknowledges that his animals “have a tendency to stray from reality a bit.”). The twist: The creature is quizzically cradling a BB gun as though to ask, “What can this be?”
“Chortkanikh” is even more elaborate, with its kneeling human figure holding a vaguely minklike critter in his hands. Whether Alm’s hunter — his head entirely covered in some kind of deer-skull mask — intends to kill or coddle the little varmint he’s grasping is ambiguous. What’s clear is how captivating the piece is, as it teeters on the edge of the campy and the mythical.
Crookall’s color photographs tend more toward the eerie. The grand and haunting “Whale Skeleton on Staircase” is exactly what it sounds. Other Crookall shots are more comical. “Deer,” for instance, looks as though its poor contorted subject smashed into a brick wall, then was hauled off after rigor mortis set in.
Some of Crookall’s photographic work is downright painterly. “Deer Jumping through Pipes,” with its dark Rembrandt colors, wraps its unlikely subject (a deer vaulting through a tangle of plumbing in a dimly lit warehouse) in rich, somber hues. Others, including “Squid and Whale” and “Ostrich Covered in Plastic,” look like glimpses into a mad scientist’s laboratory or stills from the stop-action animation Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay.
The postcard for the show, depicting Alm and Crookall against an icy Arctic backdrop with their roaring tissue-paper polar bear between them, captures the exhibit’s jokey-talismanic tone perfectly. Together, with mock solemnity, they hold up the banner from their “hunting expedition.” Their initials are proudly sewn into it. And they’re right. They should be proud.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org