Our Animal Selves | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Our Animal Selves 

A competitive Scottish dancer in childhood, LA artist Ashley Macomber installed her show of animal drawings and paintings at Kavi Gupta in imitation of a performance. Facing an entrance framed by black curtains, the creatures in five drawings represent "audience members watching," she says; the whale even holds spectacles. In the larger room five animal paintings are propped against the wall, "coming into the space, interacting with the viewer"; the effect is menacing, in part because the images can be bloody and mysterious, like the beasts in scary children's stories. Macomber says she's influenced in part by the "iconography of the fairy tale"--a deer eating its own heart is meant to be a queen, and a wolf in regal attire holding a bloody sword a king. A painting of three winged wolves represents the Fates.

At four Macomber started both ballet and Highland dance, including the solo sword dance, where the performer crosses a sword and its sheath and dances around them. The competitions were intense. "We'd get up as early as 5 AM. You'd face the judges, sitting at a table all looking at you, and behind them were your parents and the audience." At first she excelled. "I remember my mom being very excited when I won. But around age 10 or 11 I really stopped enjoying it. I would try to speak up, but my mom would say things like, 'You have your friends in it--don't you like hanging out with your friends?' I did--and I didn't want to disappoint her." Macomber preferred ballet: "When you're a little girl, a pink tutu is much nicer than a stuffy kilt and weird socks."

By 15 she'd abandoned the competitions; she'd also realized she was too tall to ever dance ballet professionally and started hanging around the art room at her high school. One of her first projects was to draw from the photographs in the book The Family of Man, and the face remains her primary interest. She watched "an immense amount of TV" while growing up, she says, and at the Rhode Island School of Design focused on popular culture: "I realized how ridiculous TV, boy bands, professional wrestling all were--but I loved them, and still do." Partly inspired by the felt Christmas tree ornaments her mom had used in an Advent calendar and partly by velvet Elvis paintings, she did cutout portraits of the Backstreet Boys in felt. She also wrote and recorded a song in the invented persona of a pop singer, made a video of herself performing it over and over while "getting more and more out of control," and built a miniature house where visitors could watch it.

After graduating in 2000 Macomber began drawing animals; she's not sure why. But her animals' expressions are decidedly human. Macomber's parents divorced in her infancy, and by the time she was three both had remarried. "I was told that I came from a happy divorce, because my parents got along. I thought, Sure, I come from a happy family of divorced people. But a divorce is a divorce, and it affects you. I started realizing that the way I felt didn't match what I'd been told." She says that now she watches families all the time. "Just last night at the mall a girl of about four or five was sobbing her eyes out. Her brother, about 12, was holding her hand and asking her what was wrong, until the mother said, 'I'm the parent,' and pulled her away." Macomber says she "pretty much loves" her family at this point but believes that a psychological commonplace informs most lives: "I don't know a single person who doesn't become their parents." Her painting Brother/Sister, the Codependents shows two deer with nooses around their necks holding hands. And Macomber says The Heroine, Voice and Voicelessness, in which a wolf cradles a deer, represents "two different versions of one person. The deer holds a rock and has inflicted pain upon itself, and the wolf is trying to save her. It's a struggle between the two different aspects of a person, about finding a voice within the chaos, becoming an individual within a family."

Ashley Macomber

When: Through Sat 1/28

Where: Kavi Gupta, 835 W. Washington

Info: 312-432-0708

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