Curious and Curiouser

Cynthia Chin analyzes Cat Sachse’s ARTSCAPE satellite exhibition.

Located on the first floor of the Botteon building on South Conkling Street in Highlandtown, Baltimore Threadquarters (BTQ) is part fiber-and-fabric-arts general store, part classroom, and right now, part satellite exhibition space for the popular Baltimore summer art festival ARTSCAPE.

Cat Sachse, As above, so below, 2013, Photograph by Matthew Saindon

Tucked in the front of BTQ in a right angle of glass, the storefront installation space is exposed yet intimate, fully visible from the street. Some artists might be unsettled by the fact that there are windows instead of walls, but fabric artist Cat Sachse’s installation As above, so below, on view until the end of July, invites the viewer to play from multiple avenues. Viewers can approach the sculpture from the street and look through the shop window, or from inside the shop itself. Likewise, the installation encourages conversation and scrutiny from a few different approaches, but like the challenges presented by the somewhat awkward exhibition space, discovering satisfying multiple reads takes a bit of wiggling.

From nearly every approach the central figure of the piece, a large handmade stuffed rabbit appears through BTQ’s front window. Not every small business in town has a large rearing rabbit in their window. It’s an intriguing request to draw closer.

Photograph by Matthew Saindon

Inside BTQ, three clouds of ready-made stuffed bunnies clustered in lavender, pink, and mint float from the left-hand corner ceiling. These amorphous assemblages are a mass of eyes, tails, and ears poking out. Directly below, stuffed white rabbits (or their parts) litter the shaggy lime carpet. The largest figure, a hand-sewn grayish brown felt bunny perches on its hindquarters in the background. It might be this eyeless, shadowy figure that sharpens the piece’s edge and pushes it beyond a seemingly happy scene.

The largest rabbit’s presence in this space creates uncertainty. Unlike the other rabbits, it lacks facial features or plush fur, opening questions as to its origin and motivation in the narrative of the installation. Is the large rabbit about to devour the others? Or has it already had a meal, hence the strewn-about bunny parts and pieces? Is it a tribal totem, a god of the warren, looming protectively over its lapin worshippers? Are the other rabbits under some sort of spell, stupefied? Have we bitten a Wonderland cupcake iced Eat Me?

The rug calls upon the impulse for playtime, recalling the carpeted areas of pre-kindergarten classrooms. But the strewn tails and ears bewilder, cautioning us to keep our distance. Some rabbits appear to be worming beneath the surface of the lawn-like shag, playing with planar limits and object manipulability while others seem to be simply missing limbs.

Photograph from Baltimore Threadquarters

“I like to provide an altered world and a sense of wonder,” says Sachse, “and appeal to someone at the start with the surface reading that this is really happy. It gives people a moment of the unexpected; the subversiveness emerges the more you look.”

The subversiveness in As above, so below doesn’t emerge easily. Although it tiptoes on perversity, the work is careful to never cross over into something too sinister, for example the hard line of overt, horror-movie gore.

I’m reminded of Angelino Luke Chueh’s high-shock, cool-kid painting Black and White and Red All Over (2005). Soaked in blood, knife in hand, a black rabbit reveals its deep propensity for evil as it emerges from its white rabbit suit, empty severed head on the ground. Quite intentionally, Sachse’s piece avoids this kind of overt violence. Her giddy use of cotton candy colors and material plasticity, joined with a come-play-with-me appeal opens the door for viewers to perhaps feel like kids again, even if for a brief, peculiar moment.

But why bunnies? Too much Watership Down on VHS…? Too many grown dudes at malls in bunny suits…?

To Sachse, it’s about a grand master plan to have the world entirely submerged in rabbits.

Thinking she’d become a figure painter while a student at Maryland Institute College of Art, the rabbits happened slowly, showing up more and more in her work. The bunnies soon took over, pushing her artmaking toward fetish and obsession.

Photograph by Matthew Saindon

The artist draws from Japanese Superflat, a movement examining compulsivity and consumerism. The name “Superflat” reflects upon the movement’s use of flat planes of color, a riff on the historic two-dimensional imagery found in traditional Japanese art. Takashi Murakami, considered the movement’s frontman, is known for installations, sculptures, and paintings with rich jewel tones, often utilizing anthropomorphic figures such as smiling flowers or vaguely rabbit and bear-like cartoons in dizzying repetition. His work sometimes quotes and manipulates iconic couture branding and speaks to the saturation of advertising and the hysteria of global materialism.

Photograph by Matthew Saindon

Like Murakami, Sachse employs compulsive repetition, creating a visceral response of initial curiosity ending in reflections on excess and glut. However, Sachse doesn’t dive into material culture as explicitly as Murakami does. Murakami decorated the Omotesando, Tokyo Louis Vuitton store in 2009. The store and the related fashion line synthesized the art of Murakami with Louis Vuitton patterns. The store displayed Murakami’s large three-dimensional sphere comprised of touch-me soft, grinning, daisy-like flowers; color and shape evenly repeated around the surface. Sachse begins to investigate this kind of clustering in As above, so below with the clouds of pastel rabbits suspended from the BTQ storefront ceiling, but does not focus on pattern and repetition with Murakami’s almost corporate mathematical precision.

Sachse maintains two paths in creating her body of work, which merge as a single rabbit-oriented monomyth: creating installation pieces that are genuinely fun and pursuing her affinity for the absurd. Sachse not only sees rabbits as subject matter but as immediate visual celebrity, “They’re an easy access point… Rabbits are soft, rounded, and recognizable.”

As above, so below examines the absurdity of object overuse and exudes the unsettling intimacy of strangers inviting you to play. This dramatic tension between repulsion and invitation results in thinking about how play can be dangerous which might remind the viewer of the limitations of innocence. At once endearing, overwhelming, and a little mad, As above, so below is an arena where innocent memories become twisted with the perceptions of adulthood, where we’re at once transported backwards to a place of innocence; maybe sad that we can’t stay.

 

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A writer, poet, and fabric artist, Cynthia Chin has taught art history and material culture at a local independent school. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Contact marcus@whatweekly.com.

Cynthia Chin is a freelance writer, poet, and fabric artist living in the Baltimore/DC area.

Matthew is a photographer based in Baltimore.