At Her Mercy
Nature is beautiful, romantic and tranquil — that is, until you are in the middle of it. For most of human history, we have been trying to conquer, control and triumph over nature, creating safe shelter so as not to be at its mercy. Of course, now that we have obliterated a lot of the natural world, we are idealizing and romanticizing it. These issues are at the heart of Peat Duggins's show, "St. Boniface's Last Days" at Art Palace Gallery.
We aren't the first to do this. The artists-scholars of China's Song period created elegant, idealized views of nature as a place of tranquil repose. After the Mongol invasion, many of them chose exile in the provinces. Living in the midst of nature, they began to depict it as formidable and menacing.
Duggins had a not dissimilar experience when he took a bike trip from Brownsville, Texas, to Fairbanks, Alaska, that lasted from April 12 to July 11, 2009. The trip was part of a video Duggins was working on about land use and the development of the American West. Somewhere in Alaska, far from cell phone contact and civilization, surrounded by mosquitoes, Duggins felt his view of nature shift. It was the howling of wolves that did it. In his talk at Art Palace, Duggins said that although he and his two traveling companions had developed strategies to deal with grizzly bears, when he heard the wolves howling it triggered a deep, primal fear.
His images of nature have their own ominous aspects. Duggins created a series of marquetry plaques, with scenes crafted from various shades and varieties of inlaid wood veneer. Pretty butterflies float as a coiled snake swallows a frog, its legs kicking frantically even as its tongue shoots out to snag a butterfly and take it down with them. In others, flowers bloom as insects overrun them and songbirds tear apart a butterfly.
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In the same way that Duggins's imagery subverts marquetry's decorative origins, his choice of materials subverts the reddish-brown "wooden" frames surrounding the plaques. The plaques' ornate, leaf-adorned frames are actually cast fiberglass. The same material used to fabricate hot tubs frames the wooden images of nature. That's pretty funny. The frames have a kind of "Disney" look to them, as if they were décor for the Seven Dwarfs' cottage in the Magic Kingdom.
The St. Boniface of the show's title is the 8th-century guy who, as a part of his campaign to convert Teutonic tree worshippers, cut down an ancient oak considered sacred to Thor. Shockingly, Thor didn't smite Boniface, and the priest gained some converts. Then Boniface made the mistake of trying to convert the Frisians, and they obligingly martyred him.
Duggins's wall plaques feel icon-like, and the show has an unmistakably ritualistic feeling to it. A long, hooded cloak that looks like the vestments for some sort of druid priest is in the center of the gallery. The cloak seems to be inhabited until you walk around to the other side and see the metal stand holding it up. The garment is gorgeously crafted from hundreds of pieces of felt cut into the shapes of leaves, with a train long enough to satisfy the bridal ambitions of a Dallas debutant. The autumnal orange, rust and yellow of the leaves impart an earthy sumptuousness to the piece, but it also has religious overtones — the hooded head of the cloak has a dense crown of twigs.
Several "wooden" busts are situated around the room, cast in the same oddly chocolaty-brown fiberglass as the frames for the marquetry pieces. Duggins uses his felt leaves here as well, hooding the busts with them. But rather than draping over the heads of the busts, they cling to them; ominous and suffocating rather than ceremonial, they appear to drip over the heads. I picture the faces underneath gasping for air.
In the back gallery is Duggins's video St. Boniface's Last Days, which features a figure wearing the leaf cloak. The video opens with a scene set in an animated woodland backdrop, in which the leaf-guy is ceremonially crowned by other leaf-cloaked figures. Disney-like animated birds fly into the figure's open cloak. He walks out of the drawn background and into the real world, moving through trees and a grassy field that slowly turns into an urban landscape of asphalt and buildings. At the end of the video, the figure steps into an animated bus populated with silhouetted riders. He opens his cloak and releases the birds and some deer that look like Bambi's dad. The bus vanishes, and the animated creatures move past warehouses and through the city and back into the woods, as the video cycles back around.
The video's message is fairly ambiguous. The figure and the animals read as missionaries from the natural environment in the built environment, but they return to their woodland home, leaving the urban landscape unaffected. Perhaps some things just can't — and some things shouldn't — change. Or maybe the leaf-priest's approach is symbolic of romantic, unrealistic and ineffective strategies for saving the natural world.
Duggins's Alaska epiphany didn't turn him into some angry disillusioned romantic — he comes across as more of a realist with a wry sense of humor. After he returned from his epic bike trip, the artist published the journal he'd kept, detailing his group's adventures in text and drawings. It's a really wonderful little book. The drawing from day 89 is labeled: "The last day camping in wilderness." It depicts a bear biting the artist's wrist as he gives it the finger.
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