About Giraffe Traps and Other Dilemmas (nine works on paper by Douglas Max Utter on display at William Busta Gallery, Nov 21-Dec 27, 2008, opening reception 5-9pm 11/21)
Among my favorite books is an antique, over-size work, a Victorian-era compendium of marvels titled “Wonders of the World.” It includes semi-scientific accounts of exotic flora and fauna, profusely illustrated with wood engravings. Several of these have inspired sketches and paintings over the past few years. One work recently shown at William Busta Gallery, “Man with a Red Mustache,” was based on an illustration found in a section dealing with national “types” and costumes.
Also derived from one of those engravings is a sketch in mixed paint media on canvas titled “Giraffe Trap.” The original illustration showed giraffes standing up to their shoulders in square pits, dug in a level field near a cattle pen. The caption was “Domesticating the Giraffe.” Accompanying text described an ill-fated expedition to the interior of Africa and attempts to bring back live specimens for display in Europe. The giraffes eventually died in transit.
The giraffe painting was a present for my daughter. Recently I borrowed it back from her and re-read the entry dealing with the image. Day-dreams about confinement and the incongruity of willowy giraffes sprouting like daisies, planted by deranged gardener-explorers, led to the current series of fantasy works.
The mysterious transfer of numinous properties from one image and era to another has been one of my preoccupations. There is that so-called, fast-dissipating “aura” attaching to the artwork in the context of late Western art and the advent of mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin famously observed. But there is also the destructive, irreligious neutrality of any art work, as Islamic philosophy insists, as imagery approaches the divine or takes the Godhead as its subject matter. That is perhaps part of my subject in these basically playful recent works. Giraffes here seem to acquire their halo or charismatic presence by being enclosed in a black or red, roughly geometric space. This “power” is then transferred to the humans and animals who contact the captive creatures. The energies born of confinement constitute a contagion of significance. Spread by the art work to its viewers, it inspires odd acts, sacrifices, and dreams.