There is, within the aesthetics of the grotesque, an unsettling interconnectivity between the organic and mechanical, between the hybrid and the cohesive whole. We don’t mind when we can give such hybrids a name (such as the Borg) and relegate them to the realm of science fiction or fantasy. But then there is the art that tends to defy all known scenarios, refuses to be so easily placed in a narrative. The art of Richard Kirk thrusts the viewer into a surreal, organic world that denies us the ability to name its creatures — we can only describe these beings in terms of their component parts, the objects from which they are constituted. Since we are denied the agency of simple naming, the narrative builds and deconstructs simultaneously, allowing the creatures and their constituting objects to retain an uncanny autonomy. Another way to frame Kirk’s art is to consider the implications of object-oriented ontology: that all objects have an intrinsic worth outside of human consumption, and that it is only in coming to terms with this new ethical paradigm that we might reroute the rather dubious path we find ourselves treading concerning eco-relationships (Cohen). Kirk’s bricolage reconstruction of the natural world investigates this paradigm through the motif of organic decay and mechanical intervention. These endearing, yet horrific characters thus create a grotesque synergy that overturns the hierarchy of animal/mechanical/human we see in much of our media-saturated culture (humans are at the top, and both the animal and mechanical kingdoms are meant to serve).
For instance, take Kirk’s The Dust Mill, which presents us with a Tim Burton-like vision of Father Time and Baby New Year. The baby’s human face is marred by all the candle wax dripping down like prison bars, yet that humanness is immediately undercut by the potato body and its sinuous root that seems to form a tail. Time itself is a serene, emaciated figure with branch-like arms that are barely screwed on. The huge key sticking out of its head hints that there is a stronger, more potent entity that actually controls it, and reinforces its expression as a being of time – like a wind-up toy or wristwatch. Yet the pen or paintbrush it cradles evokes the creative, narrative power of time itself — not time subservient to our definition concerning modes of production (appointment at 8 a.m., pick up laundry at 10:30, etc.). Perhaps it is not what we do with our time that is so important, but rather rethinking how we have constructed its passing. How would it be if we stopped dividing it into the mechanistic second, minute, or hour and instead read it as one long poem? Kirk dares us to look at time in such a way, outside of human history, for his work cannot be placed in the present, future, or past. Could we then apply that creativity and paradigm shift to our own mythology — reimagine the ice age as its own entity and ecosystem instead of always putting it within the construct of evolution, thus subtly making it a narrative subservient to our Western constructions? The pregnant female form to the right — residing in between animal, vegetable, and mineral— might indict us even more. The strange ribbon flowing out of Time’s pen wraps her face so that she is blind (perhaps she can no longer see the creative power of time, being so bound by it). Her head bursts with branches that resemble antlers and her cape fans out like wings so that compositionally, it has the most mass in the picture and spreads a kind of translucent light across the barren landscape. Time and the candle-covered baby stand together while the pregnant figure faces the other direction, blind and bound, head sunk low. Behind the cape, two birds fly towards her, but the only other animal, a stitched together hybrid, has turned away, its snout hanging dejectedly as it walks away. If the figure represents nature, what monstrous thing could she be giving birth to, that Time and his son must abandon her? Could it even be us?
The Breadcrumb Navigator explores similar themes, the title playing off of a darker fairy tale about cannibalism and abandonment. The girl staring at us with such a fierce gaze might even be Gretel herself, wondering just where Hansel has run off to. Now she’s left with a motley crew which has expectantly gathered around her, the Lost Boys and Girls of the animal kingdom. One of the littlest boys, foregrounded to the left of the girl, is missing an arm. Gazing downward, he seems to sense that the mission of finding “home” again is an impossibility, given the mist that covers the landscape in a blanket of white, except for the one solitary barren tree hovering above them. The mechanical boy next to him gives this little one a reassuring pat on the back, the slinky neck bowing ever so slightly in empathy. His already-bald head shows signs of unnatural wear and tear with patches of skin missing, suggesting that he has lived a life of hardship. The tragic violence of this story is undercut by a larger-than-life cricket, who reaches out to smooth down a flyaway strand of the girl’s hair. Or maybe it is lifting up the strand to inspect just what, exactly, this strange animal is. The giant crow that towers above her already holds a ribbon in its beak to begin building a nest; however, the only tree in sight doesn’t appear to be big enough for that family of freaks, and besides, it’s already taken by a monkey wearing a rather dour-looking human mask, complete with antlers. Or is it a hybrid like the others? It resides in between — neither real nor unreal, refusing human or animal status. The same can be said of the humanoid creature on the left, which appears to be a tree wearing an overcoat and mask; maybe even nature understands that it must appear in anthropomorphic guise in order to be taken care of. Its fellow orphan has less options, apparently, with a birdhouse for a head, but then follow the line of its form and you see it’s wearing a dress, with two slender tentacles peeking out the bottom. Fish and fins seem to erupt from its body, thereby materializing the abstract idiom neither fish nor fowl. The girl is the only actual human in this ensemble, and her piercing glare is what keeps us from entering a world of pure fantasy. One hand on hip, the other drawn up to her face, her stance almost holds a challenge to the viewer, asking us just how, exactly, we intend to fix this nonsense.
That narrative and visual distance can trap us within the realm of the grotesque — caught between human gaze and apocalyptic horror/humor. Within most of Kirk’s beautiful, deteriorating landscapes, there lies a subtle challenge for us to critically rethink our relationship to the elemental and animal kingdoms. Look for the bottle of poison jutting out from the flowers in Murder in the Court of the Katydid King; notice how Tragedy of Erroneous Pagination places dream and memory side by side as they are examined by the freaks of nature (human made, perhaps). Consider, then, Kirk’s use of these organic angels and mechanical hybrids as a warning bell that there might just be enough time to turn down another path before the nightmare of ecological disaster becomes a reality.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Elemental Relations.” In The Middle. inthemedievalmiddle.com. 29 August, 2012. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.