On his departmental homepage at Vanderbilt University, Mark Hosford, Associate Professor of Art, describes his work as using “narrative imagery to reveal societal wonders and blunders.” I’m not sure reveal is the right word to use, given how much transgressive laughter and horror fill Hosford’s strange dreamscapes. His work makes us see a world where Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street teams up with Casper the Ghost and invites the Blob out to play: you’re not quite sure of the rules, or even if you’re going to survive the experience, but oh, the grotesque adventures you’ll have trying.
We’ll begin with the series Ghost Stories, a series of drawings that Hosford’s states “explores humankind’s ongoing fascination with ghosts, spirits and the unknown. In many of these drawings, I researched and illustrated actual reported events that are surrounded by myth and legend, while other drawings became newly imagined scenarios” (34). This tension between the real and the unreal, the narratives reported and those that sprung out of reader reactions, begins to make us teeter on that grotesque seesaw. For instance, the setting of Gracie is a little girl’s grave — certainly not playful material by any stretch of the imagination. Yet Hosford is able to bring in the gothic and macabre in such a frenetic way, we feel a certain movement of joy and terror. We have skulls, bones, and a dejected looking Gollum-like creature in the right corner; however, behind that sad figure, two faces on the gravestone are either spewing out some form of liquid, or sucking it in. The young person half covered in this goo seems to be giving up the ghost, which exits from his/her mouth, waiting to be caught by a warty midwife. The coils that this midwife sits on connects with Cthulhu-esque tentacles to the monster bursting out of the little girl’s gravestone.
Already, we have the carnivalesque in play with the conflation of birth and death. Perhaps this is Gracie’s rebirth, for that strange being at the base of the gravestone sports beautiful doe eyes and a human arm. The statue of Gracie herself bears a halo in all this glorious chaos, which repeats the glow emanating from the midwife’s hands and the new spirit being born. Next to that ghostly form, a decapitated little girl sits beside her own head, watching the action; beside her, a potted plant. In fact, plant life creeps here and there around the rather barren graveyard. In a culture that publicly mourns its dead via social media but shortens the time we are allowed to be sad before prescribing the Prozac and other wonder drugs, Hosford’s work asks us to see the vital connection between decay and rebirth.
Of course, dealing with the ghostly does not have to always venture into the macabre. The little girl in Thrift Store Spirits reminds me of how I spent most of my nights after watching my first Dracula film. I forget who played the dashing vampire; all I remember is sleeping with the blankets tightly wrapped around my neck — adequate protection, I’m sure, from those sharp fangs. The girl here has similar fears to deal with, such as the devil making his stock appearance, complete with horns (although a bit on the short side). As in much of Hosford’s work, any kind of threshold or opening becomes a place where strange life bursts out. Notice the forked tongue slinking out of the teddy bear in the right hand corner (is there a serpent lurking within our favorite nighttime companion?), or the punctured hands lying in a pool of blood under the bed, which repeats the glowing hole carved into the person/spirit sitting on the bed. Out of all the characters in this narrative, the figure sitting on the bed most troubles me with his/her glowing hands. Is this a spirit the girl dreams of, or a dark memory she is trying to forget? The arms reaching out for her from the picture frame appear sinister at first, until I see that they’ve created a storm cloud over this ghostly creature. Are they then protectors, one hand to chase away the evil, the other hands to stroke her hair? Other monsters hide behind the bookshelf; in fact, this drawing is all about what is hidden beneath our waking world — all of those secret beliefs we don’t dare utter to our friends or family, or the fears we’re not conscious of, or have few, if any, names for. The title Thrift Store Spirits also has an air of playfulness, implying that there is something well-worn about this world, or perhaps a little cheap.
In the Trials of Mara series, Hosford creates a journey into the fantastic for a little boy to find his way back to reason. Lisa Rierson points out that Mara is the “symbol for distraction, disaster, delusion, and obstacles for Siddhartha Guatama” in the Tales of the Buddha. She also notes that the series was created by Hosford after “Two dead cats, a broken engagement, a flooded apartment, and a severe recluse spider infestation.” Given that context, Brown Recluse Boys could be seen as the most personal of narratives, and yet, haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, like the young boy trapped in the middle of utter disorder and attack? The boy and girl baby on either side (playmates of Gargantua, I’m sure) seem to be of little help. On the left, barely-there cleavage hints at the form being female, but, alas, from between her legs an army of spiders launches forth. They are perhaps the deadly brown-recluse variety, but the title creates an ambiguity there. On the right, the boy wears a bullseye, an erect phallic image to his left and another bursting through his head (with what seems like a vaginal slit in center). This may challenge the notion that all males are ruled by their genitalia, which becomes an easy target for most of us to volley a load of insults about men’s sexuality. It’s not easy being either gender, apparently, but the worst threat is neither babies nor spiders, but the other creature on the bare mattress. This amphibious, alien monstrosity elicits the grotesque in its appearance because we’re robbed of our language in trying to describe it. It looks as if to have been stabbed, with the small trickle of blood gathering at the wound site. However, the spike must be sharp on both ends, for the other pointed end begins to cut through or puncture the bubble which protects the boy. There seems to be very little that he can do to escape or protect himself, which is perhaps why the guide, who accompanies him through this journey, merely puts his tentacles gently on the boy’s shoulders as if to say this too shall pass.
Hosford’s work invokes the carnivalesque at every turn, with bodies erupting into other forms, always in the “act of becoming” as Bakhtin described it, and laughable images that turn transgressive and horrific. The purpose of the carnivalesque is not to shock one by vulgarity, but to allow the high and low to merge, to have us question unspoken and often subtle oppression that we live under. In an age of information overload, where we are literally being torn apart by multitasking and over-medicating just to sustain this pace, Hosford’s series helps us to reflect, question, and perhaps break through the “distraction, disaster, delusion” of the 21st Century.
To see more of Hosford’s work (especially his Rorschachs, which are beautiful and very strange), please visit his website.
Hosford, Mark. Artist statement. Cute and Creepy Exhibition Catalogue. Tallahassee: Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, 2011.
Rierson, Lisa. “The Rise of Reason.” Verbicide. 7 Nov. 2006. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.