Mother Goosed Metaphors?
By Tom Wachunas
Exhibit: Out of the Woods and Into the Ring – works in clay by Kristen Cliffel, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio, THROUGH MARCH 6, 2016 www.cantonart.org www.kristencliffel.com
…I find myself at odds with prescribed routes to “Happily Ever After” and “Success.”
- Kristen Cliffel
I used to be Snow White, but I drifted. – Mae West
Fairytales have always been handy cultural tropes for explaining life’s more vexing underpinnings. Many of these symbolic narratives are traditionally inhabited by all manner of anthropomorphized animals and larger-than-life humans caught up in fantastical struggles wherein curses are lifted, evil is vanquished, and wishes magically come true. Essentially, fairytales are mythical formulas, or paradigms for constructing an idealized world in which we can happily live out even our most impossible dreams.
In this exhibit, while Kristin Cliffel’s striking works in clay appropriate some familiar fairytale icons, they do so in a manner that gleefully subverts our traditional interpretations and applications of their meaning. Collectively, you could consider their odd juxtapositions of symbols as deconstructing the codified behaviors and expectations that fairytales commonly describe.
Entering the gallery, we’re immediately greeted by a trio of characters mounted atop circus pedestals in Roll Call: What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway? The piece establishes a primary point of reference in the exhibit – one that seemingly questions the stereotypes and expectations of motherhood. A clown queen, a comforting storyteller and trained entertainer, a nurturing mamma bear? The recurrence of axe forms and imitative wood textures in some of the pieces might suggest mother as multi-tasker, chipping away at the challenges of being a homemaker, or otherwise navigating the circus/circle of life. In both Failing Upward and Unfinished Dreams, the Snow White-looking face wears a Pinocchio nose. Are her dreams of climbing the proverbial ladder of success tantamount to living a lie?
As forms modeled in clay, these sculptures are wondrously crafted. Their spectacular colors and bold textures (both illusory and real) often evoke vintage Disney animations. Yet belying the sense of childhood innocence that such elements might conjure, an aura of irony and very grownup, glib humor is palpable. The fawn’s head in Welcome Friends, for example, looks for all the world like a smiling Bambi, mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. A fractured fairytale indeed.
PHOTOS, from top: Roll Call: What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway? / Mother / Unfinished Dreams / Failing Upward / Welcome Friends