It’s rare to feel as if an animal can possess you — inhabit your body, mind and spirit as if it were a new lover exploring all your real and artificial selves. Dress your dogs and cats with as many sweater vests, booties and hats as you want; they’ll never come close to the hybrid human qualities that seductively inhabit the work of Beth Cavener Stichter. This might be, in part, because she views her stone sculptures as portraits — of people she has met briefly in passing or good friends or family. She doubles the uncanny moment by acknowledging that these creatures are self-portraits as well, since the very act of interpreting another’s actions, facial expressions, and intentions says — and betrays — much more about our own fears and desires than the other person. We rarely acknowledge or intellectually wrestle with this flash-fiction judgment that we impose onto friends and strangers alike.
Such unempathetic narratives splice the complexity of the human soul into simple, reductionist labels: Democrat, Republican, homeless bum, soccer mom, pot head, Wal-Mart shopper, abuser, drunk, snob, absent dad, etc. Stichter’s work morphs that wall of labels into the hall of mirrors through the gaze of L’Amante, a surreal jackrabbit. Stretched out languorously upon the block, this creature’s stare will rival Manet’s Olympia. Its almond-shaped eyes reflect and deflect the audience expectation to gawk at an object, to own its beauty. This delicate, holy creature is imprinted with the map of the natural world. Follow the intricate patterns to see the snake winding up its hind leg or the giant moth that spans its rounded buttocks.
A similar kind of hostile sensuousness pervades The Question That Devours. Caught in mid-action, a wolf dives down, mouth open wide like Wiley Coyote with the Road Runner in sight. But this prey doesn’t flee and in fact, seems poised to launch straight into the predator’s mouth. Together they form the punctuation mark that crowns our deepest desires: Do you love me? Where are you going? Why do you hate me? Do such questions begin to devour others when we cannot answer them for ourselves, when we look to outside validation for the only source of that truth? Or do we huddle into a ball and wait for the inevitable violence of being consumed by another’s desire?
The ambiguous relationship is further complicated in The Sentimental Question, where the wolf has pinned the rabbit to the wall in a lover’s embrace, or to keep away from others who may want to share its meal. The wolf looks out, though, like it is protecting this prey, and has wrapped its limbs so completely around the rabbit that upon first glance, you cannot even see it. Only when one moves to the side do you see the little body snuggled into the larger one, its arms not thrust out in violent struggle but merely hanging in front, the face tilted down, as though lost in thought.
Such ambiguity makes for a very uncomfortable relationship, for certainly we are usually looking for someone to blame for our pain or imprisonment. So often, though, we are co-conspirators in those strange plights. Now turn the lens ever so slightly towards our environmental crises, and what might this say about protecting our predators, who keep ecosystems healthy by controlling other levels of population? Cavener Stichter’s work, by tapping into the human and animal simultaneously, questions the interactions we have unconsciously commodified through social and economic codes of ownership.
The artist also transforms these “things” into martyrs that bring us closer to both the ethereal and the earthly, such as in The Adoration, which plays off of the Van Eyck altarpiece. Hung now at such an angle so that the jeweled blood flows more quickly, the contorted lamb with its inner light also acts as a chandelier. So often we make our religious subjects into objects of grotesque decoration, to be appropriated through our sight, and so rarely, with our hearts and brokenness. The White Hind, subtitled The Bride, plays with notions of the “domestic sphere” as hand crafted doilies trail behind the deer like a veil. Pierced like Saint Sebastian, it rests awkwardly on its forelegs while staring serenely at the viewer, not offering either judgment or forgiveness, but remaining frozen in the act of sacrifice.
The grotesque elements in her work are actually quite subtle, and so strong is the beauty of her craft that viewers might not even be aware of the degree of transgression committed upon them. But listen to this warning: those animal eyes that seem so innocuous on your first walk through the gallery will surely penetrate the membrane of your dreams later in the week. You won’t be able to shake the terrible questions they ask, but do not stop seeking for the answers they refuse to give — that precarious road is the only one leading us back to a kinder humanity.