Elliott Hundley: The Bacchae
Nasher Sculpture Center
Through April 22, 2012
Ancient Greek tragedy inspires great art, and LA-based artist Elliott Hundley’s The Bacchae , currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculptural Center, is no exception. Through a combination of found-object assemblages, stunning large scale collages and an oil on linen painting that nods to de Chirico, Hundley’s work evokes all of the lust, betrayal, violence, and despair expected in a visual interpretation of ancient Greek tragedy. Metaphysical art is presented through eclectic materials, photographs and a unique interpretation of the human form. Hundley’s catalog challenges the observer’s preconceived ideas of sculpture and collage, and brings Euripides’ final, tragic play to frenzied life.
Outside the main gallery stands the first piece of Hundley’s catalog: her house smoldering (2011). This entry-way assemblage represents the final destruction of the royal house of Cadmus at Agave’s hand. The structure, made from found materials such as polyurethane foam, wood, glass, coral and leather, challenges aesthetic sensibilities and may even make you wish that you had a Cliff’s Notes version of The Bacchae with you for reference. This free-standing theatrical work stimulated my curiosity, introduced me to Hundley’s bizarre interpretation of the tale, and set the tone for what I was about to see inside the main gallery to my right.
Inside the main gallery, my gaze fell upon three assemblages of various sizes, the thyrsus. These three pieces are each named for the three daughters of the House of Cadmus: Agave, Ino and Autonoe. They represent the ivy-covered staff used by Dionysus’s worshippers in their Bacchanalian fests, but more importantly, the assemblages represent the harrowing role each sister plays in the final acts of the tragic tale. These installations are so complex and detailed that I circled each one several times to absorb exactly what I was seeing, like the glass “berries and leaves and flowers” in one “dark divine wand” as described in the play’s text. Mesh netting, pins, ropes and plastics are used to create a visual and tactile representation of confusion and emotion as each sister falls under Dionysius’s spell. I probably spent a good fifteen minutes viewing each thyrsus, yet still came away feeling I missed something.
The three thyrsus lead me to my favorite of the assemblages: tearing flesh from the bone (2011). This complex piece is an image of murder, created from an array of materials including upholstery coils, goat hooves, metal leafing, pine cones, feathers and even lobster legs. After mistaking King Pentheus for a lion while under a Bacchanalian haze, Agave and her two sisters rip his body from limb to limb. In this graphic piece you see one of Pentheus’s separated limbs; his “flesh” made of netting falls away from the wooden “bone” and the red tree-limb “blood” spurts from his wounds. Dionysus’s revenge upon his mortal family has come to fruition.
The reality of death interpreted, I turned my attention to the oil painting of Euripides and to the giant collages which hang along the walls of the main gallery. Styled after Greek Surrealist Giorgio De Chirico’s 1921 pencil on paper sketch, Hundley’s Euripides continues the metaphysical art theme of this body of work. This Euripides has the introspective crossed eyes of De Chirico’s image, but also another pair of eyes that look out at you in a direct manner, challenging you to question what you see in the bulletin board collages around you.
The giant collages, depicting several crucial scenes from the tale, are busy, colorful, mysterious and dramatic, and they evoke the works of Hieronymus Bosch in their visual style and narrative. The murder of Dionysus’s mother by his father Zeus in the lightning’s bride (2011) and the moment Agave catches and slays the spying King Pentheus in eyes that run like leaping fire (2011) are both captured through the skillful use of stick-pinned photographs of Hundley’s friends acting out the play’s characters. These strategically placed photos, along with historical and cultural imagery, weave moments of violence, lust, passion and death into powerful emotional statements. Magnifying glasses extend from the collage panels in various locations, allowing viewers to interact with the art. I bent closely in to peer at the severed head of Pentheus and saw a detailed view of a vengeful Hera watching Zeus carry the dead Semele. Lines from the play’s text snake around and behind the collages’ photos, creating a sense of cohesiveness and flow to an otherwise schizophrenic assortment of images. Should you wish to take the time to read the various lines, you’ll gain a better understanding of what exactly is happening in each of the collage’s panels.
Though it is not necessary, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with Euripides’s The Bacchae before viewing this exhibit. I didn’t highlight every piece of Elliott Hundley’s epic catalog in this review, and during your visit you will find additional assemblages and collages that will open your eyes, challenge your mind and cause you to question what you see. Hundley’s skillful and creative use of eclectic materials brings raw emotion to life in an organic, bizarre and visually arresting way. And because of this exhibit, you may no longer see discarded upholstery coils, plastics and metal pins as trash, but as potential artistic treasure.