One Mad Pixie

Posted: 10 Mar 2004  |  By: Andrew Nicholls

Crawling from the rafters, growing out of the walls, or crouched, guarding the gallery space and daring you to enter - you do not merely view Susan Flavell's work. To borrow from curator Suzie Attiwill's Spacecraft thesis, you encounter it.

Untold artists have concerned themselves with exploring the unconscious, but Flavell's practice is characterised by her use of the language of the unconscious to explore a single subject - for over a decade she has focused almost exclusively on the sculpting of animal forms. Whilst this has included the occasional realistic swan or kookaburra for her public art commissions, the majority of her creations are fantastic or monstrous hybrids, resonating with a powerfully ambiguous presence.

Susan Flavell, Locustman

Her more memorable creations over recent years have included a 2 metre-long locust with a human head, a spider whose body is a human tongue, an owl-headed, human-sized hairy doll, and a dog covered with boils, each one topped with a staring glass eye. Her choice of mediums is equally diverse, incorporating everything from traditional textile and sculptural techniques to found objects, papier-mache and woven cardboard.

Mythology, both classical and contemporary, abounds with monstrous dogs, hairy dwarfs, and bird-headed humans, but Flavell is not interested in merely illustrating other people's stories. Many of her creatures are taken directly from her own dreams, and in the 2001 Perth International Arts Festival exhibition Parallel Worlds, she exhibited two double bed mattresses, transformed into Lilliputian dreamscapes through the addition of tiny cast animals and trees, sewn-on boulders and stitched rivers and waterfalls. Other works have been inspired by mixing different details from her extensive collection of plastic animals, or flipping through the thesaurus to discover surprising word associations. Her drawings, which inform the sculptural works, recall the Surrealist drawing game, Exquisite Corpse. Though solo works, as opposed to the Surrealist's group exercise, they result in equally alarming juxtapositioning, and evoke a similar sense of the uncanny - rendering the familiar unfamiliar and thereby threatening.

Anthropomorphism features significantly within the childhood psyche - as evidenced by the proliferation of helpful or threatening animal characters in children's literature - and Flavell's works tend to place their viewer in the position of a child, fascinated but also threatened by what it sees. Her creatures seem to occupy a similar psychic space to the more fearsome characters of the pre-Disney fairy tale. The titles of her recent works indeed read like something from a demented children's book - Cocky Thin Ted, for example, or Woody Fish Eye, Kid Copper Jackal or Fatty Hampster.

Flavell's recent exhibition at Artplace, Untethered, (her first solo show with the gallery) comprised 40 new works ranging in size from miniature cast bronzes to child-sized creatures whose scale evoked an eerie sense of life. The exhibition evidenced a major shift in Flavell's practice through her investigation into different surface techniques designed to bamboozle the unsuspecting viewer. By successfully evoking textures such as stone, marble and metal, through various surface treatments over plaster, ceramic and paper bases, Flavell reinforced the ambiguity of the works, and their trickster-like character. They began to operate not only as mock animals, but also mock sculptures, mimicking the appearance of 'high' art - cast bronze and carved marble - through means generally associated with the 'low' arts - paper mache, and trompe l'oile.

Also notable in Untethered was Flavell's treatment of the face, which she exploded across the bodies of many of her creatures, giving some multiple eyes, noses and mouths, others, no face at all. The face is where we look to see ourselves reflected - to gauge whether our presence is welcome or not. In removing or distorting their faces, Flavell has rendered her animals even more uncanny - they seem aware of our presence, but we have no way to register whether we are at threat from them.

In focusing almost entirely on a single obsession for over 10 years, Flavell has set herself an intriguing project. What has stopped her work becoming repetitive is her formidable talent in evoking a genuine sense that her creatures are actually alive, and very possibly dangerous. She is primarily driven by a deep-rooted respect for the natural world, and no matter how unconventional her creatures are - or how humorous - they are always dignified. In this latest body of work, their uncanny physiognomy and ambiguous materiality has only served to increase their arresting presence. Through such means, Flavell simultaneously reveals the beauty and menace implicit in the Other.

Image: Susan Flavell, Locustman, 2002, cardboard and hot glue.

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Issue 38