3.20 / Review

Vampires and Wolf Men

By Mary Anne Kluth August 2, 2012

Anna Fidler’s Vampires and Wolf Men at Johansson Projects consists of fifteen large-scale, unframed works of acrylic and colored pencil on paper. Working from photographs in the Oregon Historical Society’s archives, Fidler’s portraits recast Oregon’s settlers and everyday citizens from bygone eras as monstrous apparitions.

Fidler draws each likeness on top of psychedelic washes of translucent ink. The resulting dispersion and reticulation of pigment surrounds each figure with an otherworldly aura, an effect reminiscent of much of the spirit photography that emerged in the 1860s—about the same time as many of Fidler’s historical source images. Fidler’s overall palette consists of natural earth tones punctuated with hallucinatory greens, turquoises, or glowing pinks. Her figures are stylized, rendered in flat, tonal areas that recall digitally processed topographical maps, while her paint application and careful networks of colored-pencil marks reveal an earnest craftsmanship.

George (all works 2012), for example, shows a stern-faced man, seated, wearing a suit, his eyes glowing green. In Wolfman II this treatment transforms what must have originally been an image of a smiling man with a prodigious beard into a picture of a menacing, paranormal being. The compositions of these pieces, while gorgeous as abstract surfaces of marks and colors, also suggest soupy masses of mold and bacteria, as if the paper itself is being reclaimed by nature. Beneath Johansson Project’s distinctive moss-covered ceiling, Fidler’s drawings start to resemble microcosms of lichens and fungi, her obsessive mark-making the trails of industrious beetles and worms.

Anna-Fidler-The-Mansion

Anna Fidler. The Mansion, 2012; acrylic and colored pencil on paper; 20.25 x 15.75 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

Anna-Fidler-Emma

Anna Fidler. Emma, 2012; acrylic and colored pencil on paper; 99 x 72 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

In literature and pop culture, werewolves and vampires typically represent super-human appetites and uncivilized animal impulses. But the massive scale of many of these works, such as Alexander (99 x 72 inches), underscores that the mythological monsters of the show’s title might in fact be the big forces that shape human experience: nature, time, and death. Fidler’s eerie portraits also bring to mind a different but equally timely creature: the zombie. Zombies are particularly abhorrent because their decay isn’t self-contained; it threatens to spread and rapidly consume every person it encounters. All three fictional boogeymen have enjoyed renewed pop-cultural significance since the financial meltdown in 2008, and it’s likely not a coincidence that creatures with mindless, uncontrollable appetites and the drive to prey on human beings are compelling fictional figures as our culture grapples with how to deal with its destructive avarice.1 In this light, The Mansion—which depicts a streaky black shell of a house with glowing orange windows and is the only painting of a building in the show—feels like an apt response to the “death” of the housing market and malingering fallout of the national crisis.

Fidler’s striking and disquieting renderings of historical figures at once collapse and call attention to the long interval between her subjects’ era and our present day. Vampires and Wolf Men digs into Oregon’s history, excavating pioneering American citizens as decaying, wild-eyed carnivorous beings out of time and place, neither living nor dead, neither of their time nor of this one. Our present period will most likely be remembered as an era of unstoppable greed and economic chaos. While it is hard to imagine what the individual lives and goals of the actual Oregon settlers must have been like, based on Fidler’s depictions of them, her skepticism—about the results of Manifest Destiny in particular and, more generally, the capability of Western civilization to sustainably address the very drives that threaten our collective welfare as a species—is writ large in her drawings.

 

Vampires and Wolf Men is on currently on view at Johansson Projects, in Oakland, through August 4, 2012.

 

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NOTES:

1. Take, for example, the phenomena of “zombie banks”: investment banks that have gambled away their capital and now must be propped up by governments and international funds lest their contaminated liability bring down the global financial infrastructure. 

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