From under your bed into a museum

Two Minnesota artists bring human monstrosity to light

Katie Wilber

Fairy tales and comic books teach us that monsters are scary, deformed creatures. Monsters instill fear in human hearts. They are outcasts devoid of attention and love.

But later in life, we understand more. We see that we are, perhaps, the monsters we despise and revile.

“Ecchy Homo” and “Subderma,” the newest exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, features two Minnesota artists who took the theme of monstrosity and ended up with two entirely different interpretations.

Thanks, in part, to the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run division of the MIA, the institute plays host to works by Chris Mars and James F. Cleary through Nov. 20.

Cleary, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, focuses on photomontages that combine bits of print with drawings. He sees monstrosity as the degradation of the human condition, and the collision of pieces from different media are harsh, almost brutal.

“I believe that my purpose as an artist is to illustrate the ‘end times’ in which we now live, to reveal our stupidity and arrogance, and thereby lead people back to God,” he said in an MIA news release.

His “Stoned-Age Man” criticizes drug addictions with an image of a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie and a tongue-in-cheek description of the work. Adorned with pictures of various drugs, the montage shows how Cleary feels the decline in morality and responsibility has made monsters of us all.

Mars’ paintings, on the other hand, look at the hope of compassion and salvation despite deformation and immorality.

“All art is political in some sense, be it through conformity, reflection, propaganda or rebellion,” Mars said in the MIA news release. “My paintings are rallies and trials, photographs of a moment when truth was made public, and mercy known.”

The colors Mars used in “Cleansing at Blue Bay” are at once vibrant and somber, bright and bleak. The subjects of the painting – all afflicted with what society deems a deformity – beg for help, for release from their suffering. They are cast into the category of “the other,” separate and unwelcome.

Cleary’s pieces provoke either genuine or nervous chuckles, while Mars’ work evokes a sense of sympathy.

The two perspectives complement each other instead of clashing. They make for an interesting yet nerve-racking display of the fallacies of the societal conscience.

They question the definitions that rule our society, our definitions of right and wrong and of human and monster. They show that, if we define ourselves by what we are not, we inevitably become something worse than what we imagine “the others” to be.