LA Weekly, November 11, 2004
The Bear Essentials
Much of the art world is teetering on a blunted razor’s edge these days: On one side, it’s hard to stifle the yawns as the latest batch of half-assed figurative sketchwork — overly sentimental mushrooms sprouting out of the nothingness, user-friendly and ready to accent the fireplaces of the semi-rich and almost famous — appears in white cubes all over town; on the flip side, we’re staring dumbly at an abundance of not-very-compelling and overly intellectualized MFA-sanctioned second- (or is it third-?) generation conceptual work that adds to the “dialogue,” as the saying goes, but beyond that, appeals to few. One area of art, however, that is showing much promise, especially among the younger artists in Los Angeles, is sculpture.
Carlee Fernandez and her beautifully absurd “Bear Studies” is a strong example of the fresh life being breathed into the art scene by sculpture. The show, at Acuna-Hansen Gallery, consists of seven large-scale (30-inch-by-40-inch) images and one outstanding diptych composed of two smaller images. More important, it addresses one of life’s age-old quandaries: What happens when Homo sapiens auditions for the role of Bear?
Lounging in her loft inside the Brewery complex not long ago, Fernandez pretty much summed it up in a sentence while glancing down lovingly at her German shepherd, Bart, curled up at her feet. “You know, sometimes I just look at Bart and I wonder, ‘How many of me would fit inside of him?’” Then the petite brunette Angeleno, who received her BFA from Cal State Fullerton and her MFA from Claremont, cracks up.
Fernandez’s work, like most art worth experiencing firsthand, can’t be reduced to a pithy characterization, although the concerns that have fueled it from even her earliest days of art-making provide a fairly straightforward map with which to approach the artist’s jumbled-up human-meets-animal-meets-nature oeuvre. “I basically always deal with three fundamental concerns in my work,” says Fernandez, “natural beauty, spatial environments and dark humor.”
In “Bear Studies,” we find Fernandez, naked save for various portions of a bearskin, in a series of odd and controlled positions in a barren room with gray concrete floors and white walls. The result, a kind of frozen ballet in the space between man and beast, manages to be thought-provoking, funny, sexy (attractive bodies greatly aid in fully realizing interesting ideas) and, most profoundly, just downright bizarre. I mean, it’s a half-naked woman wearing a bear over portions of her body, stalking around a room and striking vaguely classical poses. Says Fernandez, “This new work is about cracking a bear open and seeing this human inside, like those Russian dolls.”
Aided greatly by the austerity of the tableaux, “Bear Studies” echoes the early works of West Coast art legends like Charlie Ray or Chris Burden. For quite obvious reasons, it forces the viewer to ask the time-tested big questions, like What is our relationship to the natural world and, more specifically, the other species sharing the planet with us? And do we at least honor the other creatures we consume by using them to their fullest, by avoiding excess and wastefulness? In the middle of posing these monumental and dangerously PETA-adjacent kinds of questions, however, Fernandez has not forgotten the Golden Rule: No matter how conceptually devoted an artist may be, “boring” is never a good thing.
Predating “Bear Studies,” Fernandez’s “Still Lifes” fused taxidermied animals together with one another, stuffed them with fake fruit, and even joined them with plant life. Before that, there was the “Friends” series, consisting again of altered taxidermied animals; this time, however, the intent was to accommodate everyday human needs. For example, there was “Lola Issern,” a Barbados Blackbelly Sheep with a clothes hamper fused along the ridge of her back. The “Carnage II 7000” series, Fernandez’s final grad-school project, also used taxidermied animals, such as the buffalo that was converted into a piece of rolling luggage or the mini-antelope that found its next calling as a fanny pack.
It’s all part of a progression, Fernandez explains. “Most often what happens is that my next series is generated at least in part out of what I perceived to be shortcomings in my last series. A solution to a problem raised by whatever was my last body of work. Like with ‘Still Lifes,’ my last series, it really bothered me that I had to use fake fruit in the pieces, and so with ‘Bear Studies,’ I decided to actually use myself instead,” says the artist. “Or when I finished the ‘Carnage’ series, it’d bothered me that there were all these handles attached to the animals, so with ‘Friends’ I actually embedded things right into the animals, which made the work more streamlined and kept it so that the pieces stayed more about the actual animals themselves.”
Chris Acuna-Hansen, who along with his wife, Blair, has been working with Fernandez since 2000, sees the new work as leaner and more conceptually focused than the “Still Lifes” series that immediately preceded it: “What I love about this new series is that it strips away any kind of spectacle aspect, and by using the photography opens up the layered meaning of the work while still, at the same time, retaining a certain tongue-in-cheek aesthetic which you’ll find throughout all her work. What’s always worked for me is the push and the pull, that dichotomy between the rigorous and the humorous.”
Bringing “Bear Studies” to fruition required many stages and began with having several bears shipped from Vermont to her aunt’s house in Nevada in order to comply with a California law forbidding the in-state purchasing of bearskins. Fernandez then transported the bears by automobile across state lines, modified them and embarked on a two-and-a-half-month “performance period” wherein the artist sought her own inner bear. She familiarized herself with ranges of motion, explored the diversity of spatial relationships between artist and animal (in one piece, Fernandez wears the legs over her head) and continued customizing the bearskin as her research — time spent actually being physically inside the animal — dictated. “It was really hard, and I was having problems in it,” says Fernandez. “I felt very helpless in the middle of the work. Not having my eye looking through the viewfinder, and wondering if I was holding my hand in the right position. I’m used to staying up late and solving problems with work on my own. I’m not used to being at the mercy of other people [mothers, photographers, et al.] in that way.”
Then, at the conclusion of her woodshed period, which included Mom dutifully shooting snapshots (oh, how they indulge their artist kids), Fernandez narrowed down the poses and enlisted the services of photographer Fredrik Nilsen (who’s served similarly for L.A. artists like Charlie White and Mike Kelley) to document the final poses.
Fernandez considers herself a sculptor, since she envisions all of her work in a three-dimensional context, and doesn’t feel it’s necessary to be the one taking the pictures, much in the same way that she also doesn’t feel compelled to actually stuff any of the animals she uses in her other work. The final product, that is to say the actual piece, is a photo-documented sculpture that exists in two dimensions. Everything leading up to that point — the construction of and any alterations to the bearskin, the discovery/performance period in the studio, the photo-documentation — is merely phases of the artist’s process.
“The end result had to make a nice formal sculptural shape that would work two-dimensionally, which I don’t think performance art is too concerned with. To me, performance art has an element of experimentation and discovery that I don’t think exists in my photographs. My goal was to try out for being a bear.”