From Michael Roch’s exhibit, The Armchair Naturalist
Guest blogger Kristen Keckler, of Denton, teaches creative writing at University of North Texas.
What would happen if you fed foam peanuts to the elephants? Perhaps Michael Roch’s exhibit The Armchair Naturalist, currently at the Conduit Gallery, attempts to answer this question. At the show’s opening, among art fans of all ages, I felt as if I were on safari through this exotic landscape, one inhabited by friendly, cushion-foam wildlife.
And if, like me, you love strawberry and vanilla ice cream, you may also find a mouth-watering sweetness to Roch’s high-density foam sculptures. As I perused the well-lit center room devoted to Roch’s work, even though I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years, I couldn’t help but think that these animals were inviting me to, well, eat them. Mustering every ounce of self-control, I kept my tongue in my mouth, refrained from taking big greedy licks.
And this I say with admiration and not to reduce Roch’s work to eye candy. For while their thick pink and white stripes scream “artificial flavors added!” these sculptures are surprisingly natural and realistic. Roch pulls this off, I believe, by carving (or cutting) expressive postures, palpable textures and angles (suggesting fur or feathers) into his animals. For example, near the room’s entrance, a beaver stands on a podium and extends his paw, as if to say “nice to meet you!” Toward the rear, a bunny’s ears are thrown back, her right foot splayed in a stance both defensive and playful, like a puppy or maybe a kid at karate class.
Mixed media canvasses cover the walls behind the sculptures, and among them are drawings of elephants and crocodiles on backgrounds painted with colorful swirling ribbons. The two elephants wrestle trunks playfully, in some sort of kiss or embrace. Two crocs, on separate canvasses, appear to be laughing, mouths alack, their bared teeth adding only a hint of malice or danger (like the smiles of politicians?). I couldn’t help but wonder: were there lessons to be gleaned from the obvious anthropomorphism, beyond ideas posited by Disney and PETA (that animals have feelings). Are humans so inherently narcissistic that we can’t help but and see our own likenesses in nature?
If the answer is, as they say, “in the eyes,” then maybe I found it in the synthetic flower orbs attached to each animal’s countenance. The vibrant faux violets, mums, daisies, and zinnias add the only hints of color in a sea of white and pink. The contrast creates a startling effect, one that most definitely drew me in. As I glanced across the room at the beaver, his eyes seemed not only to possess depth and movement, but the illusion of lashes as well. (I thought: Mr. Beaver, are you flirting with me?)
It’s interesting to note that the ape’s eyes are daisies, and the daisy (beside suggesting youth, bridesmaids, late spring days, and the cheerful garnishes we attach to flip-flops, presents, cakes) represents innocence and purity. So was it a coincidence that below a slightly furrowed brow, the ape’s daisy eyes seemed to gaze peacefully and thoughtfully into my own? While the flowers add life to the representations, at the same time, I also associated the flowers with death, as in the X’s marking closed, dead eyes of cartoons, or as in the expressions “pushing daisies” and what-not. So the fact that the flowers replace, or mark, the eyes could have more somber, and morbid, implications as well. And right before I exited into the hot, early autumn night, I thought: are these animals alive or are they dead? If you are a little bit curious, get off that armchair and plan a trip to the Conduit Gallery to see for yourself. Roch’s exhibit is on display through October 11.