curated by Michael Brophy and Vanessa Renwick for Core Sample
artists included The Photo Research Group/Thomas Robinson, Cynthia Lahti, Malia Jensen, Michael Brophy
and Vanessa Renwick
by Cecilia Dougherty
-The final stop of the tour bus was the Belmont Factory, a truly cavernous structure taken over by exhibits and installations. It was like an alternative museum, with plenty of cement and just a few white walls, inviting a relaxed approach to looking at the work. An exhibit about the culture of hunting called The Hunt, curated by Vanessa Renwick and Michael Brophy, brought together my previous observations of the day.
Taking up a long wall of faux-wood paneling, Tom Robinson’s row of five black-and-white prints from archival negatives documented a rabbit drive in Harney County. A rabbit drive was a roundup of wild rabbits that were beaten to death with clubs and, in some cases, shot. This was a form of wildlife management used by farmers in the area. Rabbits destroyed crops, but the practice of slaughtering them was not actually effective in reducing the rabbit population, and so it ended in 1916. In some of the pictures, people look into the camera and seem happy or proud or at least like they’re having fun. It seems to be a special day. The rabbits run in a frenzy at their feet, trapped by fences.
On first look, the straightforward objectivity of the camera combined with the unfamiliarity of the rabbit drives creates a sense of horror. The framing divides the scene-"rabbits at the bottom and humans at the top. The bottom half is a tale of terror, confusion and helplessness. In the wide, empty middle space is the land itself, the reason for the rabbit drive. At the top are scores of people with clubs and rifles. The rabbits’ natural predators, chiefly coyotes, had been hunted and destroyed by the same people who were now engaged in the slaughter. R.W. Heck, who ran a local photo studio, took the photographs in 1914. He made postcards from the rabbit drives, which were distributed widely at the time. Now the images communicate a profoundly tragic aspect of American westward migration-"land grabbing, overhunting, the application of cultural practices completely foreign to the traditions and ecology of the area, and the displacement or killing of the original inhabitants. Within a contemporary context, though, the images point to universal concern about impending environmental crisis, and speak most clearly about settlement in Oregon.
Vanessa Renwick’s installation, Hunting Requires Optimism, referred to another Oregon native, the gray wolf. Her piece consisted of 10 refrigerators, different models and sizes, in a row against the wall. Inside all but one was a video monitor with black-and-white documentary footage of wolves on the hunt. In two of the video loops the wolves catch their prey and in the seven other loops they lose out to fatigue. One of the refrigerators was rigged with a recording of howling wolves that turned on when the door was opened. Within the concrete cavern of the Belmont Factory, the howling conveyed the vastness of the space in which it was originally recorded, Yellowstone National Park.
While Oregon is the native habitat of the gray wolf, the packs are gone today except for an occasional stray from Idaho, where they are a protected species. In 2000, two gray wolves were found dead in Oregon. A vehicle hit one wolf on Interstate 84, while the other was found shot dead.3If the howling of wolves
provided the wilderness origins of Hunting Requires Optimism, the refrigerators provided the civilized realization. Renwick included a statement with her piece: “A failure rate as high as 90% is recorded in studies of wolves’ hunting attempts" -information that she distributes on refrigerator magnets as part of the installation.
Hunting trophies are a prop for the rugged woodsy lifestyle. Malia Jensen’s altered trophies in The Hunt made a sardonic commentary on both the hunting culture and artmaking. Double Deer is a two-headed trophy covered in red leather, with the heads pointing in opposite directions. Their color is more like the red of Christmas than the red of blood. Jensen’s second sculpture, Mascot, is made of her own old painting rags and mounted on a painter’s palette. Beer bottles replace antlers. She thinks of Mascot as a good-bye gesture to painting, what she calls a “dramatization of that moment” when she abandoned painting for sculpture. In the context of The Hunt, each piece expressed a regionalism that was both grateful to and burdened by its own traditions.
Michael Brophy’s painted cement pillar made a similar point. Brophy painted one of the very tall concrete supports of the Belmont Factory to look like a wooden beam. An economical gesture, this piece condensed the wooden cabin aesthetic to a single reference, but was painted on one of the structural supports of the
factory. Pictures from hunting magazines inspired Cynthia Lahti’s small-scale sculptures, Two Hunters, Archer and Huntress, but the aesthetic seemed to go back a few decades. Two Hunters is a pair of brown glazed ceramic figurines representing a man and woman lurking around a tree trunk with rifles in hand. The figures are choppy and resemble carved wood. Huntress and Archer are single female figures in molded glass. The glass itself is a translucent light blue and the tomboyish figures seem stuck in an everlasting moment of pursuit, adding a dreamy distance to their subjects.
The Hunt by James King-Loo Yu
An exhibition curated by Michael Brophy and Vanessa Renwick
The relationship between predator and quarry remains a fertile subject for art, as it did when humans roamed plains and woodlands and tracking food, God, or sport, or each other. Hunting is the world's oldest narrative.
Today, our Lasceaux markings are everywhere; the stories, more convoluted, but present. These moments of unification, where the pursuer overtakes the pursued, the prey is subdued, the criminal ensnared, the lover enchanted, the objective neutralized, are all variations on an immortal refrain passed down in ritual, myth, song. These considerations underlie the selections for an exhibition orchestrated by painter Michael Brophy and filmmaker Vanessa Renwick entitled "The Hunt."
With eight artists including the curators, "The Hunt" explored elements of pursuit and capture. "None of us hunt, but we've all make art about it," Renwick said of the participants, "It's a totally raw, romantic idea."
"We talked about in the sense that it's an interesting way of looking at the landscape," said Brophy. "It's like a lens that focuses the way people think about where they are."
The intersection of human social values with environmental forces and the natural world is never far from any Northwesterner's mind. Hunting is a divisive social phenomena that often pits urban values against rural mores and shapes ideas of how the cultural and physical landscape should be used or depicted. Rather than adding to one side of this debate or the other, the artists of "The Hunt" accentuate the complexities, mining the rich history and symbolism.
The Photo Research Group is a Portland consortium comprised of photographer/fine-art printer Jenny Ankeny, Coos County photographers Scott and Brandi Gregory and Portland photo archivist/historian Tom Robinson. Hanging next to the routed wood sign at the show's entrance were black-and-white historic photographs selected and printed by the Photo Research Group,. Culled from sources ranging from 19th century glass-plate negatives to late-20th century found negatives, the prints were displayed on a faux-wood-paneled wall (itself, photo-generated). With scenes and portraits from across the country, the display became an impromptu family room where photographs of the hunters themselves are the trophies. "They're rites of passage," said Robinson. "Generations, passing down a heritage to each other, men out on vacations."
The subjects were varied: A rabbit drive and its aftermath; a hunting party spends an evening in joyous song with an accordion and bottled beer; a wolf stands forlornly in the woods, its hind leg caught in a trap. In one print, deer are propped up in a car as driver and passengers, the viewer presumably caught in the headlights in a grim visual joke. Many of the images capture individuals in candid poses: Holiday, fishing and camping photos, with an outdoorsman's bounty of meat and fur. The explicit documentation of carnage in some prints evokes the cold documentation of police crime photos.
Vanessa Renwick, a Portland-based artist whose experimental and documentary film and video work explores issues regarding ethics, bodies and landscape, offered the poetic and satirical "Hunting Requires Optimism." Renwick's extensive research on wolves for the upcoming documentary film, "Critter," led to the concept behind the installation: 10 vintage refrigerators, each housing a TV playing video footage of wolves, solo and in packs, attempting to bring down prey. With the title spelled out in a cursive of black locust branches on a blood-red wall, viewers opened doors game-show style. The amazing footage -- shot at Yellowstone Park by cinematographer Bob Landis showed plenty of chases, but only one successful kill. The howl of a wolf emanated from one empty refrigerator. The installation's title came from an old hunting book Renwick found. "That's totally wolves," according to Renwick, "because 90% of the time they don't get what they are after."
Cynthia Lahti portrays a stark solitude in the sculptural characters she presented in The Hunt. A Portland native and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, her work often utilizes a variety of strategies and media to explore recurring themes of personal and cultural mythology. In this show, four detailed figurines, made of blue glass or ceramic, depict armed men and women alone in the woods, intently searching for prey, each other or themselves. In The Happy Day, an altered children's book by Ruth Krauss, Lahti added her own drawings to the rustic illustrations, displayed on a red table and desk. Archers and shooters look upon scenes of ghostly, bucolic harmony or roam winter forests on a search for game. Couples slow-dance and sway; neotenic creatures peer from the snowy trees as hunters load pistols and nock arrows. In a paper collage triptych, "Landscape," Lahti combines giftwrapped cutouts and drawn figurative with doodles and finger-painted swirls made by her niece.
Lahti's vision of the wilderness is nostalgic and fraught with the possibility of emotional isolation, a looming specter of violence just out of view. The men, women and children in her work are invested in a constant struggle. "We all come from hunters," Lahti said. "There's still that drive."
Michael Brophy's paintings explore the consequences of human intrusion on the natural landscape and the contentious boundary between the modern, technological world and the natural order it increasingly envelops. In Coast Range felled trees, scattered shotgun shells, and a beer can on a stump obscure a view of mountains. Forest and Clearing (Aim) and Wild Kingdom (Bighorn) are small gouaches depicting target shooting and big game. With Pillar, Brophy painted one of the gallery's concrete columns to look deceptively like wood.
There is a sense of dread in Brophy's work, but his post-heroic presentation of the subjects he depicts gives an impression that a grand algebra has been set in motion with equilibrium inevitable. Even human intrusion and disruption can be seen on a larger scale as a reorganization of environmental balance; nature is a social construct, after all.
For Brophy hunting is not a simple issue. "It's like the logging industry for me," he said, "because everyone comes down black-or-white, where really it's the whole middle that's so interesting."
Malia Jensen often employs animal bodies and forms in her work. Every hunter seeks a trophy, and her wall-mounted sculptures are paradoxes challenging distinctions between animal and prize object. Unexpected materials blur the boundary between flesh and not-flesh, making the urge to touch the works appreciable. "Mascot," Jensen's swansong to an early painting career, draws from pop-sources: A deer head with Jasper Johns-like quilted skin of used paint rags rests upon a well-used palette base, empty beer bottles for antlers. In "Double Deer," constructed from red leather and nails, co-joined heads peer out from the wall, mutant taxidermy of a forest Janus. At once sensual and unsettling, the pieces posit an alternate zoology where dream and metaphor are transmuted into corporeal form.
-from the CoreSample catalogue, Clearcut Press