Monsters are tricky things. We love them, fear them, need them, despise them when they invade our dreams a little too often. Their ubiquitous and yet marginalized presence in our lives rests on the contradictory emotions elicited by such creatures. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and uncanny independence” (4). This “uncanny independence” means that we are not as in control of the monster as we would like to be, that often they can crawl, jump, or slither through the linguistic fence of Otherness and into our world. Cohen states that “[t]hrough the body of the monster fantasies of aggression, domination, and inversion are allowed safe expression in a clearly delimited and permanently liminal space. Escapist delight gives way to horror only when the monster threatens to overstep these boundaries, to destroy or deconstruct the thin walls of category and culture” (17). I would argue that the grotesque monster is one constructed to always be playing on the margins, always on the verge of being named, and yet consistently denying any kind of possible categorization. Geoffrey Galt Harpham defines the grotesque monster as one that is “non-thing,” even though “there is much we can recognize” in its form (5).
Harpham also cites Baudelaire’s description of caricaturist George Cruickshank to illuminate the kind of unique synergy present within the grotesque: “I should say that the essence of Cruickshank’s grotesque is an extravagant violence of gesture and movement, and a kind of explosion, so to speak, within the expression. Each one of his little creatures mimes his part in a frenzy and ferment, like a pantomime-actor…The whole of this diminutive company rushes pell-mell through its thousand capers with indescribable high spirits, but without worrying too much if all their limbs are in their proper places” (quoted in Harpham 8).
Harpham goes on to say that “depending upon the circumstances, trammeled energy can be fearsome or exuberant, or both. Grotesque forms, in fact, almost always inspire ambivalent emotional reactions. But Chesterton was right to give sheer energy its epigrammatic due, when writing in his 1903 study of Robert Browning that “Energy and joy are the father and mother of the grotesque” (Harpham 8).
I like that description, since when most people think of the grotesque, they only see it in terms of the violent and bizarre. But to really split any binary opposition and to destroy old paradigms, the grotesque itself is an in-between aesthetic — it must hold that “energy and joy” as well. Simkins’ work plays off of the bricolage of American culture while forming new monsters that question our relationship to the natural world. In Simkins’ kitschy, carnivalesque universe, no body is distinctly separate from each other, but orifices burst forth and spew life into other bodies. This interconnectedness wraps joy around his rather dark, fantastic visions.
Influenced by street art and surrealism, Simkins’ work often incorporates a delightful, creepy game of misdirection. For instance, our eyes are first drawn towards the sad puppy in Tango (2010), who is looking up in fear or sadness at something off stage. It is then that we notice a singular eye glancing down at the poor pup, but that eye holds neither malice nor pity nor any other emotion that we could name. Nor can we give any kind of label to the creature that inhabits that one eye. At first one might think it some deep-sea creature that has burst out of its abyss, but no, this scene takes place in space, as we begin to notice the faint stars in the background. If clouds are creatures such as this, then the sky becomes a rather uncanny mirror of the darkest ocean on which this little menagerie is set adrift. The creatures gathered around the little dog are grotesque hybrids of prehistoric animals, woodland critters, and underwater inhabitants, with a dash of pop culture thrown in, including creepy allusions to Donald Duck, Bambi, and Mickey Mouse. They do not seem to be looking at the giant monstrous form, but rather their gaze is directed towards the dog — perhaps hoping that the “normal” form of man’s best friend can unite the rational and fantastic?
Night’s Hand (2009) takes us even further into the realm of the nameable. There are some aspects of the main creature that we can label, of course: hoof, batwing, hand. But is the head made out of a pumpkin? We cannot tell if the monster’s body has been pierced by the striped spoke now emerging from its underside, or if the spoke is merely a part of its genetic makeup. If it has been stabbed, then the head is thrown back in agony, and the hand grasping the orb will soon loosen its grip. Simkins often juxtaposes sharp objects with the soft and bulbous flesh of the creature, and always to an ambiguous, and ambivalent, effect. The larger monster behind “Night” is even more disconcerting since we only see its eyes, much like the creature in Tango. We sense that it might have much more power because of its size, but are given no clues to its function. Beneath them, a waterfall cascades over a wall of honeycomb, yet there is nary a honeybee to be seen, only a glimpse of a prehistoric fin sticking out of the river. Such a mix of symbols serves to rupture a sense of place and history. Have we time traveled into the past or an apocalyptic future? There is no sense of narrative closure regarding the strange violence presented here — thus the grotesque always keeps us on the threshold of unknowing, of denying the agency we are so used to having when viewing art.
In Knight Meets King(2010) we are again thrown into the carnivalesque world where bodies burst out of one another. A prehistoric monster centers the entire picture, its back broken through by an equally monstrous combination of sheep, camel, and fowl. Only the bluebird at top — the thing we can name — is crowned “king.” The “knight” seems to be part of the prehistoric form, still conscious and able to dimly gaze up at the king, despite the fatal wound it has received. The blood-soaked tatters of its cloak are pushed to the background, but still give the underlying message of the violence it took to establish this new rule. Hammerhead sharks that border on being fantastic circle around them, waiting, perhaps, for the ancient animal to fall and provide sustenance. They, at least, are not yet extinct. But this nightmarish vision perhaps warns us that we destroy all monsters we cannot name, cannot even put onto a list of “endangered” or “extinct” because their existence still eludes our imagination and science.
The violence, horror, humor, joy, and beauty experienced through the monstrous grotesque is meant to ride on the margins of agency and knowledge (both ontological and epistemological). From their contradictory characteristics to the ambivalent emotions they produce, these kinds of monsters can never quite be curtailed to that realm of Otherness where they can be enjoyed or hated. They are lovely, terrible creatures that smash binary oppositions by robbing us of language and agency. In that wonderful moment, we are tripped headlong into the rabbit hole of the fantastic, where both the real and unreal have equal power.
To view more of Greg Simkins’ work, visit his website.
All photos used with permission from the artist.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.