Friday, April 19, 2024

Artist Creates New Species

Unless you’re living on the island of Dr. Moreau, stuff is what it is: People are people, animals are animals, plants are plants. When two of these things become one, it tends to give us pause.

You’ll receive a lot of this pause at the Norton Museum’s extraordinary winter exhibition, “Klara Kristalova: Turning Into Stone,” the first U.S. museum exhibit for this clever, disturbing and existential artist. Working mostly in sculpture made from glazed stoneware and porcelain but contributing images in watercolor and India ink as well, the Czech native creates hybridized life forms—convergences of humans, animals and nature in which anything is possible.

In her drawing “Night,” a cloud has a human face as it drifts through the evening sky, like a ghostly contrail examining our every move. Tree branches replace girls’ traditional appendages of arms and legs, as in the sculpture “Stiff;” tears become leafy branches when they trickle from the eyes of a facial bust, in “Spring.” In Kristalova’s sculpture “The Catastrophe,” dark matter spills from a girl’s open mouth, forming a puddle underneath her torso that seems to be consuming her body; and in her watercolor “Big Blue River,” an ocean of blue floods, once again, from girl’s mouth. Elsewhere, animal heads rest atop human bodies and vice versa.

Should we feel empathy for the humanoids of Kristalova’s imagination, who seem to be tortured, transformed and otherwise overwhelmed by forces outside of themselves? Or should we see her twisted frankenpeople transcending mere humanity, and speaking to issues of oneness with the world at large, where the survival of hogs and bats and tree species are as vital to the ecosystem as people? I’m inclined to go with the latter, because beyond their surface morbidity, Kristalova’s creations emanate love, comfort and protection.

Look no further than her signature sculpture, “The Sleepless”—presented in the Norton in its original glorious scale—where woodland creatures provide solace for the slumbering child they surround. In several of her pieces, insects such as moths and butterflies swarm and smother the faces of children, which can seem like a nightmare or, again, like a protective blanket. Because the human figures remain ambivalent to the possible onslaught, I’m inclined to believe the winged creatures are benevolent. The artist seems earnest in her appreciation of all things living, breeding and hybridizing, and yet she’s never preachy about her environmental messages. The works are too rough and intense to ever descend into self-conscious sentiment.

The exhibition is structured in roughly chronological order, with works from the early 21st century yielding to pieces completed over the past few years, culminating in some that have never been seen before. The sculptures gradually grow bigger in size, reflecting a maturity in both her figures and in the artist herself. More so than the earlier works, sculptures like “Birdwoman” and “Childplay” are meditations on identity as it matures from childhood to adolescence. “Sitting Bunny,” with its rabbit-eared girl, makes for an apt metaphor for the body’s physical changes during this time, while “Anonymous Guest,” with its fully rabbit-headed figure, suggests feelings of otherness.

This is perhaps the ultimate emotion that resonates across this artist’s profound oeuvre—the sense of being different from the herd, of being the kind of person who attracts one too many butterflies, who sleeps aside foxes and owls, whose orifices open into netherworlds, who flocks to where the wild things are. The most impressive section of “Turning Into Stone” is a menagerie of some 14 such sculptures, boxed onto a dimly lit shelf of connected cubes, like a display of nature’s mistakes fit for a carnival sideshow. There is perhaps no better audience for this beautiful and haunting exhibition than those who feel they don’t belong.

“Klara Kristalova: Turning to Stone” runs through March 29 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. The museum is closed on New Year’s Day. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.

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