'Furry Friend' by John Zane Zappas
Few metaphors are as universal and enduring as the monster, particularly in the arts. From ancient mythological chimeras to Hieronymus Bosch's creepy Renaissance-era religious landscapes, Frankenstein to Freddy Krueger, that which is monstrous speaks to our primal earthly anxieties: fear of the unknown, confusion, guilt, repression, alienation. Monsters make a fine stand-in for the Other, letting artists explore the darker, flawed flipside of the self, a shadow or foil to all that we consider praiseworthy about human nature. Often, they turn out to be more human than we'd like to think.
Monsters can inspire fear and revulsion, though not always. In contemporary culture, they're increasingly cute and cuddly, defanged by their creators. Just think of Pokemon (a portmanteau of “pocket” and “monster”) and Spike Jonze's new film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. The creatures in both have all the classic characteristics of monsters (horns, claws, otherness), but hardly elicit a horror-flick scream.
Still, for the most part, the monstrous taps into a deep place in our psyche. Even emboldened with science and common sense, we are a little rattled when representations appear before us. We might even look under the bed when we get home.
This October, leading up to Halloween—the ultimate celebration of monsters—three local art shows delve into the subject matter in very different ways.
Cereal Killer at Subtext, featuring Patrick Ballesteros (through Nov. 1)
Weaned on comic books and fantasy films like Neverland, Los Angeles-based (and former San Diegan) illustrator Patrick Ballesteros takes a playful approach to his monsters—more Tim Burton than actual terror.
“I want to create a world that falls outside our normal perceptions of reality but, at the same time, feels familiar and creates nostalgia for the viewers,” he explains.
For Ballesteros' show at Subtext (www.subtextgallery.com), which includes seven full-color pieces and a sketchbook full of preparatory drawings, the artist has come up with an incredibly clever and funny series concept. Cereal Killer, an obvious pun on “serial killer” (the very embodiment of the human monster), follows the killing-off of some of pop culture's favorite cereal mascots. (You know monsters have come a long way from the gates of hell when Count Chocula and Frankenberry can sell sugar-laden breakfast cereals to kids.)
The artist's images are dark and delightful. In one scenario, the fanged skeleton of Count Chocula is discovered bound to his armchair with a string of garlic cloves and wooden stakes through his hands. At each crime scene, the case's two detectives have missed the assailant by moments. When the perpetrator is finally found, you realize that the most monstrous among us may be masked behind the least frightening appearance.
Monsters by various Yeller artists, on the Subtext patio (Oct. 10, 7 to 10 p.m., one night only)
Yeller, a new-ish San Diego art collective, also finds the fun in the freaky. The theme of the group's latest installment, a one-night only show at Subtext, was conveyed in one word: monsters.
“It was perhaps inspired by the month of October, or our mutual fascination with drawing subhuman creatures,” says organizer Lindsay Preston. An image on the collective's blog (yellerstudio.com) also appears to have inspired one of the group's members, Clarke Forrest. In it, four kids in scary masks curl their fingers in what they perceive to be menacing poses. “I'm beginning to think back to all the things I used to come up with when I was a weird little kid,” Forrest writes. “And as a weird adult, I am really enjoying myself.”
Why do children, especially, seem so fascinated by monsters? Maybe they intuitively and imaginatively grasp the concept even more than grownups. Behind a monster mask, they can inhabit a different role—silly, but smacking of something a little sinister.
So, too, do the artists in Monsters tackle their subject matter. Multiple eyes and gaping mouths filled with craggy teeth are rendered with pops of cheery color. Plain wooden boards are carved into the simplest ghost shapes. And slimy, sweaty green beasts look sad rather than scary. Here, the monsters are lovable misfits more than anything else—a perfectly apt symbol for artists themselves.
Clayton Llewellyn at Device Gallery (opens Oct. 17)
San Diego artist Clayton Llewellyn gives the eeriest of offerings this month, though his monsters are of the mechanical nature—less literal, but still foreboding.
“My work in this show will focus on the edges of our attention,” Llewellyn says. “It is that which is cast off, left behind or forgotten in the name of progress. It grows in the dark, under the sea, on a desert plain— anywhere but where we have our attention focused. It is a replicant come back to be hunted down by Rick Deckard, Godzilla come from under the sea, the cure for cancer, unwittingly grown in a cave, or that which will provide the next step in our evolution.”
Monsters don't necessarily bleed when we slay them. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—and even more so in the sequel, 2010—the computer HAL, its artificial intelligence a symbol of human progress, malfunctions in a threatening manner. The point? Man creates technologies that he can't fully control.
Llewellyn treads similar territory in his Device Gallery show (www.devicegallery.com), replacing what is conventionally monstrous with imagery that, on its own, might be mundane—machinery, for example—yet in his shadowy drawings becomes quite menacing. In a charcoal-and-ink drawing called “Kicking Death in the Ass While Singing,” thick vines that look reptilian, or perhaps like tentacles, tangle themselves around a narrow ladder that curls over at the top like Grim Reaper scythes.
Artists long have used monsters to examine man's relationship to the world around him. But where the monstrous once stood for the mysterious and the vastness of the unknown, in Llewellyn's work, it's what's left behind by a world that thinks it knows—and has mastered—everything. The decaying detritus clearly proves otherwise.
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