Baroque Biology

May 4, 2007 - July 22, 2007


2006-2007 Season Presenting Sponsor: James A. & Mary Miller

Exhibition Sponsor: David C. Herriman

This exhibition pairs two artists working in different media whose imagery and thematic concerns overlap. Through varied means, Tony Matelli and Alexis Rockman both address the mediation of natural and artificial worlds. Matelli's figures depict an absurd and violent collision of primates and modern life at the hands of unseen forces. Chimps under attack, chimps after a hard night out - all suggesting a natural world under duress. Rockman's minutely detailed paintings portray a similarly troubled landscape. Rooted in ecology and science, Rockman suggests a space in which dominance wavers between humans, the animal kingdom and the natural world. Both artists tackle the complex clashes between culture and nature that inform debate surrounding the role of scientific investigation in contemporary society.

Tony Matelli presents stunningly realistic sculptures using theatrical and display model techniques to metaphorically discuss the impact of social forces on the individual. The two works exhibited here in the gallery, Ancient Echo, 2003, and Fuck'd, 2004, are infused with Matelli's typically dark and unsettling humor. Matelli frequently sculpts chimpanzees either as replacements for humans or as illustrations of evolution gone awry. These particular works imply a narrative involving extreme situations. Decked out in a t-shirt with the logo of a well known computer manufacturer, the chimp in Ancient Echo leans wearily against the wall after vomiting. In addition to being perversely funny, Ancient Echo comments on the toxic effects of technology and the complicated relationship between the march of civilization and those it leaves behind. Fuck'd explores imagery that Matelli has visited in several works - seemingly innocent creatures beset by fearsome forces just moments before entering our view. Like a modern day St. Sebastian*, Matelli's chimpanzee has suffered a horrific fate. Pierced by a multitude of sharp objects and with a severed limb left on the gallery floor, the chimp marches forward as if martyred for some noble cause. Though sculpted with tremendous precision, Matelli plays with the specific intent of his works. Is this a blunt commentary on animals being used for product-testing? Is the figure a symbol of the natural world under attack? Or is this a simian stand-in for the plight of the artist who absorbs withering critique and harsh treatment from the commercial forces of the art world?

Alexis Rockman also works in the realm where art and science meet. His paintings are often based upon ecology and maintain a firm position promoting conservation and environmental awareness. The body of work presented here was made specifically for Baroque Biology and tackles the thorny issue of evolutionary science and the origin of the human race. Rockman also employs a variety of painting techniques and references to both art history and natural history. Taking cues from history painting and Baroque sculpture, Rockman has crafted an implausible composition imagining an encounter between a torch-wielding primate and a reclining female nude. The encounter takes place atop a rocky crag above an idyllic stream under a turbulent sky. Stitching these varied elements together yields a simultaneously romantic and troubling scene. The male figure in the painting is modeled on Homo Georgicus, an early hominid primate active roughly 1.8 million years ago.

Rockman chose Homo Georgicus as the central protagonist precisely because scientists position this hominid halfway up the evolutionary scale between the common ancestor shared with primates and contemporary humans. If humans are descended from apes, what fears (rational or otherwise) come crashing into popular culture? Rockman adds to a catalogue of imagery that counts King Kong and Planet of the Apes as the most instantly recognizable examples of society's fascination with "what if?" scenarios and uneasy romantic relationships between primates and humans. Clearly, a culture that has produced countless images of humans in conflict with their closest evolutionary relatives has some serious anxiety about this issue.

In addition to exhibiting technical skill in painting and sculpture, the pairing of Tony Matelli and Alexis Rockman in the same gallery illuminates both the visceral and intellectual components of the relationship between natural and artificial realms. Both artists set up extreme contexts in which to discuss the mediation of contemporary culture and society in a world governed by the laws of natural science.


* St. Sebastian was a Christian saint and martyr who is said to have died at the hands of Roman emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post and shot with arrows.