Among the more popular forms of visual art, representation is, in a way, everything. Paintings and sculptures are generally formed to represent something the viewer can (consciously or unconsciously) relate to — a feeling, a figure, a place. But how does that dynamic change when a visual artist works with the real thing? Rather than represent a figure through visual materials, what if they apply those materials to the actual figure itself?
It’s a challenging and engrossing question that’s answered in the latest exhibition at WeHo’s Julia Martin Gallery, “In the Key of Moon” by Merrilee Challiss, running until January 25, 2020.
The show features a range of sculpture and painting by Challiss, a multimedia artist who lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama. Perhaps most notably, it features work from Challiss’ “spirit animal taxidermy” collection, a process in which she adorns stuffed deer with sequins and costume jewelry to create pieces that seem to be coming through gallery walls from another realm entirely. The pieces ultimately convey something that the artist can feel as she works with actual animal remains: the living spirit of their former selves.
“As I ‘remake’ the animals into fantastical creatures, my hands in contact with the fur and skin, I am often overwhelmed with feelings for the creatures, for what their life was like and what their life, and death, represent in my hands,” as Challiss put it on her website. “I am interested in metamorphosis, transformation and evolution. The deer are in the act of becoming something else — a dragon, a bird, a lizard, a serpent, for example — transforming alchemically into other beings.”
Orcale provides a clear example of this alchemy. Instead of the more traditional mounting used for taxidermy, the heavily-adorned version Challiss has created appears more like a portal, an entry or exit point through which the figure is transforming — an effect that is accentuated with the use of colored lighting. The deer itself is decorated with mosaic patterns and reflective shards, elements that appear to reinterpret natural coloration and symmetries in a cosmically touched way.
The elaborate spangling is a process for the artist that may speak to the effect the work will ultimately have on viewers. As Challiss creates a spirt animal, the reverence and thankfulness she feels is clear in the elevation and celebration apparent in the final product.
“The act of asking animals for forgiveness has become a meditation in my work, and is meant for the deer as well as for all the animals of the world,” she wrote. “I believe we must all do this spiritual remediation work here in our lifetime on earth, say we are sorry, ask for forgiveness, to begin to heal our rift with mother nature.”
Challiss holds a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her work has been exhibited throughout the Southeast, including at Art Basel, and throughout the country since the early 2000s.
“In the Key of Moon” will be accompanied by a simultaneous exhibition of drawings and pages from Kevin Reilly’s graphic novel Birthplace of the Saints and the gallery will also host a selection of pieces from jewelry designer Ruby Jack.
Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys Street in WeHo.