Wednesday, July 23, 2008

American Cockroach

When I first read the name of this Boise Art Museum exhibit, American Cockroach, I thought perhaps this was yet another in a long line of semi-ironic "American" titles, a la "American Psycho," "American Graffiti," "American Splendor" and "An American Werewolf in Paris" (because nation of origin is so important when it comes to movie monsters. God knows what I'd do against a Lithuanian mummy). Turns out, duh, that "American Cockroach" is the scientific term (in English instead of Latin) for the common cockroach. But even if artist Catherine Chalmers didn't really try to make the cockroach seem like something quintessentially American (and to be honest, I'm not sure she didn't intend just that), she has certainly tried to make them seem like something more than the nasty, subhuman insects we typically view them as.
On some level, I think she succeeded.
I'm not saying her films, photos and sculptures of cockroaches being executed by hanging or electric chair or burning at the stake inspired so much pathos in me that I and my boot heel would grant a pardon to a palmetto bug that skittered across my floor. The "Executions" section of the exhibit, though nicely executed -- I loved the dark, moody silver gelatin prints, the quirky giant resin roach in a noose, and the film bits punctuated by bongo beats, squishing noises, eerie wind sounds and the lub-dub of a heartbeat -- was far too amusing to inspire pathos, I thought.
But I had to admire Catherine Chalmers' dedication to her subject. She dressed these roaches in costumes. She painted on their bodies. She sculpted their antennae and wings into pictures. It's nuts.... And yet, trying to imagine her doing it -- trying to imagine her touching these creatures over and over, as she must have to create this exhibit -- I was struck by how human they must have become to her.
And some of that does get transferred to the viewer. Because, make no mistake, Catherine Chalmers' photos and videos of cockroaches are beautiful.
The exhibit consists of three sections called "Impostors," "Residents" and "Executions." The roaches in the Impostors series are photographed wearing pink marabou feathers, peacock feathers, aloe plant spines and painted ladybug spots. The photos have a gorgeous attention to color, crisp details, and, of course, amusing juxtaposition. It's all of cockroaches dressed up as "cuter" insects and birds. Think of it as a reverse Anne Geddes.
Chalmers also has some lovely pop art-style pencil sketches of cockroaches with blue dots, green leaves and pink flowers in the Impostors series, one of which I've recreated above.
The Residents series, as you might guess, shows photos of cockroaches making themselves at home with humans, huddling around teddy bears and staring into tiny vanity mirrors. The film in that portion of the exhibit, "Crawl Space," shows cockroaches crawling up from drains, clambering through vents, getting into potato chips and brie and plopping into a glass of wine, accompanied by riveting Dmitri Shostakovich music.
The films in the Executions series were nicely done, each seeming to have its own narrative. The one with the cockroach burning at the stake had particularly interesting visuals to tell the story -- the cockroach's legs and antennae writhing as the flames licked upward; the smoke wailing around the body in ghostly shapes.
This is a great exhibit if you're looking for something offbeat, clever, entertaining and imaginative. And if you want to squick out your friends by describing some of the pieces to them later.

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