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Artist's future forest anything but a tranquil woods

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

'Energy Policy'
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy of the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City, Calif.

Laurie Hogin
"American Domestic Species – U.S. Energy Policy (Satire Monkeys)," 2006
Oil on panel, 24" x 18"


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mutant monkeys and bunnies and fungi ... oh my!

If Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” were to find herself magically inserted into one of the Technicolor parallel universes created by University of Illinois faculty artist Laurie Hogin, the pigtailed accidental tourist might even wish she were back in the Emerald City.

The monkeys in Hogin’s canvases don’t have wings or a witchy taskmaster, but they’re at least as scary as those Dorothy and her companions encountered on their odyssey to Oz. So, too, are the sneering, snarling bunnies, which the artist regards as symbols of women who are “sick of their status as perpetual objects of the iconography of our culture.”

The fungi aren’t quite as threatening, but like most of the other-worldly flora and fauna populating “The Forest of the Future,” a solo “early mid-career” retrospective exhibition of Hogin’s work on view through Jan. 13 in Iowa at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the mushrooms are messengers.

“Fungi are the fruiting bodies of this unseen plant, whose function in the ecosystem is essentially recycling – the degradation of dead organic matter,” Hogin said. “So, the fruiting bodies are both evidence of rot and agents of revolution.”

And borrowing a cue from Alfred Hitchcock, who frequently made cameo appearances in his films, Hogin sometimes sneaks into her own paintings, albeit in a masterful disguise.

Laurie Hogin
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Laurie Hogin's paintings are being featured in a solo "early mid-career" retrospective exhibition through Jan. 13 at the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Museum of Art. She talks about her work in a video filmed at the museum; it also shows her at work in her studio.

The mushrooms in my paintings are also self-portraits,” she said, chuckling and explaining that they often are embellished with text. “For some reason, I feel like a little mushroom, just down there in the corner doing my part ... recycling, processing, just being part of the ecosystem ... commenting when necessary. I wear many of my opinions on my cap, as it were.”

Hogin has been stirring things up from her niche in the art world for nearly two decades, since graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989. Before that, she studied cultural anthropology and fine art at Cornell University. Her background and interest in postmodernist theory; social, cultural and political history; and the teachings of philosophers such as Kant and  Goethe, still inform and inspire Hogin’s art.

Among the works on view in the CRMA exhibition, which is curated by Sean Ulmer, are oil-on-panel paintings from a 2006 series called “Twelve Moments of Saturday morning TV – The Colonization of My Child’s Mind.”

“What I did was, I sat there for four consecutive Saturdays and got a sense of the dominant color theme for each show’s advertising and used those color schemes to represent that neurobiological seduction of my child through color and violence,” Hogin said.

She described the colors of children’s entertainment as “florid, high chroma ... what Kant would’ve thought to be utterly tacky.” Similarly, she noted, “Goethe commented that men of taste eschew bright colors; they prefer neutrals and shades. Bright colors – as he put it – only excite women, children and the savage races.”

Hogin said that despite what she observes from her vantage point as an artist, academic and cultural critic, she’s as likely as anyone else to be sucked in by the savvy masters of marketing.

“It’s like, guilty on all counts,” she said. “There are two reasons I embrace the tackiness and garishness of popular media. One is because it is about pleasure. I find those things seductive. They are engaging. They work. And that’s fascinating to me.”

Also fascinating to Hogin, as evidenced by her work, is the idea that a simple image, no matter which art-historic genre she chooses to reference – portrait, still life, landscape or allegorical history painting, or natural-history-style diorama – can convey so much content in one canvas.

“There are so many narratives that are overlaid or interwoven,” she said. “And they include the narratives that are inherent parts of the history of pictorial space, particularly as it relates to depicting commodity and nature and the exotic.”

Looking at habitat dioramas in natural history museums, Hogin said, she can’t help but notice a common link between them and retail display and fashion photography. She makes that point in a number of large-scale oil paintings, including one completed this year and included in the CRMA exhibition, “Natural History Diorama – Reedy Creek Estates.”

Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy of the artist
Laurie Hogin
"Natural History Diorama – Reedy Creek Estates," 2007
Oil on canvas

The title, she said, refers to the subdivision on which Disney World was built; the mutant creatures depicted in the diorama reflect the artificial realities of their evolving habitat.

“The poses are theatrical, the rocks resemble store shelves, the space is like a diorama/store window, the narrative is one of tortuous mutation and Disneyfication,” Hogin said, describing the painting’s content. “The skulls,” she added, are a reference to vanitas, danse macabre and the Disneyfictation of history, hence the candy colors on them.”

The idea that the natural world is being manipulated and distorted by the culture of commerce and consumerism is a common theme in Hogin’s oeuvre.
Though her canvases are populated by all manner of birds, mammals and reptiles presented in colors and patterns that do not – yet, anyway – actually appear in nature, “mad bunnies” are among those that make repeat appearances.

Included in the CRMA show are small paintings of rabbits, all variations on a theme, part of a series titled “Women’s Work.” Hogin created the paintings as an homage to working women worldwide.

“I was thinking of the saying, ‘A man can work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done’ and the gender divisions of labor and privilege that persist everywhere; the fact being that greater professional and intellectual opportunities for educated, demographically lucky women like me has not translated into a more equitable division of labor. There is still such a thing as ‘women’s work,’ and most women are seriously burdened with it. My impulse in making this intensely repetitive, labor-intensive little piece was to honor that labor.

“Of course, the bunny has always been a feminine and feminist icon to me – a symbol of objectification, fertility and reproduction ... and a creature with the ability to claim agency by looking back at the viewer, and growing fangs and claws, and blushing a violent pink as the fact of its assigned identity gathers strength.”

Another creature that reappears in various poses, color schemes and roles – from that of the brand-conscious consumer to the profit-seeking, petroleum-loving politician – is the monkey.

"Prozak Planet"
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy of the artist and Littlejohn Contemporary, New York

Laurie Hogin
Diorama: Land of Desire," 2007,
Oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

“Monkeys in the history of European paintings were always parodies of or stand-ins for human beings, as they are in my works,” Hogin said, noting that images of monkeys have figured prominently in her work since 1995.

“Another body of work in the show refers to very specific, politically topical subjects and functions in the same allegorical way as 19th-century political cartoons.” Among them is an older work, “Allegory of Politics: Politics Defeats History on a Battlefield of Chickens.”

“This painting was made as I listened to the 1996 presidential and vice presidential debates on public radio,” Hogin writes in the wall text, “and all I could think was that these people were a bunch of chickens and turkeys whose politics were limited to sentiment, jingoism and fear, or some delicate combination of all three.”

Along with canvases featuring political allegory, Hogin’s signature monkeys, bunnies and other hybridized creatures, the CRMA exhibition also includes:
• Three costumed mannequins created to explore themes of consumer culture, stereotypes and identity.

• One of a series of Hogin’s “PATRIOT Fungus,” a cast resin representation of a naturally occurring species called “artist’s fungus,” painted red, white and blue to resemble political-campaign bunting.

• Two installation pieces: “Big Bed Empire Bedroom,” a full-size replica of a canopy bed with carved text, taxidermy eyes, “mad bunny” sheets and foots stool, and a quilt made of hazardous-waste warning labels; and “The Thrift Project,” found T-shirts from thrift stores, which have been imprinted with “iconic or mascot-like animals” and “text that suggests possible satirical meanings for the images.”

Editor's note: To see the artist at work in her studio and discussing her art, see this video.