Animal Spirits: Elizabeth Ferry at Honey Ramka
Elizabeth Ferry: Dems Toad at Honey Ramka
October 17 through November 23, 2014
56 Bogart St (between Harrison Place and Grattan Street)
Elizabeth Ferry’s exhibition “Dems Toad,” at Honey Ramka through November 23, is about transformation from one being into another, from one image into another. It features almost 20 new works, both paintings and sculptures. Two steles, each made from a Styrofoam block measuring 1 by 4 by 8 feet, dominate the gallery. The first, Diver (2014), lies supine by the entrance, a table as well as a sarcophagus. A constellation of pink and red cast strawberries in the outline of a human form have been inset into a wash of blue, a billowy veil of color that has been applied to the porous and absorbent Hydrocal surface — this is painting via libation rather than gesture. Diver may be a self-portrait — it is a woman, with breasts of cast grapefruits and a lemon with a single sliver removed for genitalia, the facial features made of polished stones, with various crystalline and smoothed minerals placed throughout the field of cast berries. The vegetal forms are an offering of Cain, organic and benevolent shapes — food that is found or grown.
Opposing Diver stands Just Her (2014), a solid, vertical block of carved Styrofoam. Just Her is less human, or possibly not at all. It has a face detailed in polished stones, as with Diver, but the massive body reads more like a looming creature, and the non-threatening fruit forms have been replaced by two spiky cast pineapples with geode irises for eyes — the vengeance of Cain? The body of the creature is decked with repetitive, multicolored polka dots — this is a colder being. Ferry’s serene Diver, laid out in bright joyous colors like a sheet of chalky candy buttons or acid tabs, speaks the pleasures of the flesh and Dionysian decadence, while Just Her, with its black and grey outline and mottled spots, is a tortured amalgam of fierceness, anger and darker angels, with a bouquet of withered wildflowers inserted in its heart.
The entire oeuvre of the show follows this dichotomy: a lot of child-like, shiny cheerfulness paired with much harsher stuff. Consisting mostly of paintings in enamel on paper or canvas, there are shadowy and sinister motifs contrasted with bright, happy animal forms as stand-ins for Freudian-inflected sexual imagery. Ferry works mostly with totemic geometries and is very didactic in her differentiations: a rainbow totem of spread thighs presents both pussies and asses rendered with an almost hieroglyphic simplicity and bluntness, Wigs On Holes Out (2014) is about an openness of objectification between the viewer and the viewed. The numerous Toadem paintings (all 2014) are visual synonyms for the spread legs, but the bulging eyes of the frogs and their generally good-natured expressions hide the sexual quagmire of the fraught gender politics of Wigs On Holes Out. The frogs merely represent sex now in a watered down reference, and have lost their baggage, which isn’t fair to the rigor of symbolism — they offer pretty and graphic sexual overtones, but lack the real excitement and possible tension and degradation of the explicit imagery.
Similarly, Lucky, which transforms a pachyderm into a four-leaf clover, and Hi (both 2014), which shows the same mammal in blue and red, happily spraying from its trunk, represent the elephant as stand-in for a phallus, one that is pissing or ejaculating — marking territory or inseminating — both aggressive acts. Toad and elephant as woman and man at their most receptive and penetrative, respectively — these iconic tropes are executed in a self-consciously over-the-top, colorful, and casual style that may be a bit too glib to get the point across to many viewers. It is in the chaos of Wigs On Holes Out and the explanatorily titled Girard Totem (2014), which refers to the philosopher Rene Girard, a proponent of the presence of coded sacrificial substitutions in anthropological symbolism, that Ferry’s drippy expressionism coalesces into a deeper statement. Ferry is the assistant to painter Joyce Pensato, and as is always the case, connections can be drawn between master and assistant (and that is a wonderful thing!). Ferry embraces the shine and chaotic brushwork of Pensato, as well as the penchant for iconic simple imagery, but with Wigs On Holes Out she brings a personalized sexuality. In Girard Totem she is open about the darker side of her sweet animal obsession. That totem is about spirits and about death and sacrifice, about never getting something for nothing.
The deeper, more poignant paintings continue with the pair of acrylic-on-linen paintings, called Online and Online with Lashes (both 2014). Like the two sculptures, which generate form from repetition of symbols, Online creates a haunting pattern from six pairs of eyes, distilling humans down to the windows of the soul. Leaving the pair of paintings ambiguous is Online With Lashes, which is the same except with the feminizing detail of long eyelashes. Is this meant to represent a male/female dyad? The open-endedness of the pairing is very satisfying. But the symbolism of the eyes comes to a very predictable halt with Sunrise Sunset (1994) and The Moon (2014), a result that is perhaps unavoidable, in that there are an infinite number of readings, but only a limited number of symbols in the end.