Visual Arts

Fear factory

What frightens you most? When we're young, the proverbial closet monster lurks around every corner. A loud cry, however, brings Mom and Dad running to the rescue, providing the comfort of an authority figure between us and the unknown. As we get older, childish fears depart and adult fears manifest themselves in our own personal conceptions and phobias. Sometimes an event launches a lifelong fear — one we must learn to cope with and, if we're lucky, master.

Response to Fear, the Lexington Art League's latest exhibit, asks us to examine the individual fears of 22 national artists. Rather than being a show of frightening horrors, the exhibit is an empowering example of the creativity of ­human resolve.

”We deliberately wanted to steer clear of work that was fearful in nature, that was intimidating,“ says Kate Sprengnether, who curated the exhibit with Lexington artist Mike Goodlett. ”We wanted the work to be artists responding to their personal fears.“

The exhibit showcases both two- and three-dimensional art that coalesces human response to fear into distinct categories: works that focus on the product of an artist's therapeutic process and those that function as protective agents.

”And some of the protective devices,“ Sprengnether says, ”like those by Steve Jarvis, literally protect him.“

An urban response

Jarvis, a professor of sculpture at the Savannah College of Art and Design's Atlanta campus, approaches his work with a definite fear in mind: survival. It's obvious in the title of his series of works: Potential Inevitability.

A bicycle is reconfigured to collect rainwater and charge a battery. A metal case comes equipped with a thermometer, a timer and tongs to boil and purify water.

”It started in 2003, when I wondered what would happen if culture started going in a different direction — artists and critics would be marginalized and needed their own space to create,“ Jarvis says. ”Then I started to think about what happens in the event of a catastrophe or collapse while living in a city environment — how to get away and re-create my own infrastructure.“

Escape Cart functions both as intriguing sculpture and as a practical first step to action. A grocery basket is repurposed with solar cells, a water jug, food, blankets, a battery-powered light and, most important, a compass set in the handlebar.

”These are not conceptual pieces,“ says the art league's ­visual art director, Mike Deetsch. ”If something happened here in Lexington, you could really use the artwork to escape. The pieces function. There's enough supplies to survive for three days.“

Jarvis, whose family consists of his wife and dog, creates the works out of concern for his particular needs. ”But they're universal — I see things that are similar across the world,“ he says. The sculptures ”are only a middle step, one to take in a drastic situation.“

"Jointed monster dolls'

Born in Lexington, raised in Michigan and currently teaching at Morehead State University, ceramicist Kira Campbell finds in her porcelain figures anything but typical doll-face beauty.

”I call them "jointed monster dolls,'“ Campbell says. ”They're in response to feeling vulnerable about my body. In creating a different body for myself, I make a new response to an event. It removes powerlessness from myself.“

Her eerie, glass-eyed ceramic dolls are unnatural exaggerations of the human form. Overlong arms connect to dramatically under- and oversize torsos, creating a form that, if alive, would not be able to move. One in particular, titled HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) Doll, is formed with no arms and Irish crochet legs in an intent to render it assailable.

”Even if she had agency,“ Campbell said with a giggle, ”she couldn't go anywhere.“

To look at the dolls as ungainly or ugly, however, is to miss Campbell's point on confrontation with body image.

”There's a delicate line between the beautiful and the grotesque,“ she says. ”Like supermodel Tyra Banks says: To be beautiful, you have to be ugly to be interesting.“

Beauty and danger

Arizona artist Mary Lucking considers her small-scale sculpture in tandem with her more typical artistic output as a way to manifest her feelings on art and fear.

”They're the exact opposite of what I do in normal life: large-scale public art. But I have a table where I collect things and start picking them up and putting them together — it's very time-intensive.“

Made with roughly 50 percent recycled or reclaimed materials, Lucking's sculptures are small monsters of repurposed technological objects, mysterious creatures both beautiful and dangerously untouchable. Phoenix, for example, is a golden mass of hundreds of the inner springs of ballpoint pens, with a tail of feathers mixed with fishhooks, a head covered in wire coils, and two tongues of electrical parts.

”I wanted a specific look for them,“ Lucking says, ”one that combined the impression of encountering the scary in these odd creatures but, more importantly, with the meticulous effort of their creation to be evident, which reflects my own obsessive response to fear.“

Familiarity in fear

To repeat actions and responses over and over is to condition our mind. Reiterating that we are OK, that the monster isn't there, that a snake is just an animal, helps us to overcome and triumph in the face of fear.

But sometimes it's not that easy. There's familiarity in fear, in rescuing ourselves and admitting to being a scaredy cat. Or yellow-bellied, lily-livered, or chicken. As Response to Fear demonstrates, however, we can add one more to that litany of fearful taunts: being human.

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