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More Than Human

More Than Human

More Than Human

April/May 2013 issue of American Craft magazine
Merve Kahraman, Hybrid Chair

Merve Kahraman, Hybrid chair. Photo: Tamer Yilmaz

Humanity’s fascination with hybrids cuts across all cultures – and deep into history. Late Stone Age cave paintings depict early human-animal figures. The Romans told of centaurs and  harpies, while Anubis, with his jackal head, watched over ancient Egyptians’ tombs. For   contemporary artists, these compelling figures provide insight into who we are and  opportunities to explore our relationship with the natural world.

If the animal kingdom had a throne, one of London-based designer Merve Kahraman’s Hybrid collection chairs might be it. The chairs are completely handcrafted, with a special paint finish and textured leather meant to imprint “an animalistic feeling” on all who sit.

For more than two decades, Adrian Arleo of Lolo, Montana, has skillfully blended human and animal imagery in ceramic sculptures. Her honeycomb works – such as Honey Comb Girl, Pasture Metamorphosis, of clay, glaze, and encaustic – take this mingling one step further, creating powerful hybrid figures seemingly formed in one of nature’s most elegant materials.

No tally of hybrids is complete without that most storied half-human of all – the mermaid. Lucky for us, Tim Tate gleefully upends the trope. Mermaids Past Their Prime is part of the DC-based artist’s series 21st Century Sideshows. A faded maid, zipper on her tail, sits atop the reliquary, while slightly chubby ones repose below. On the tiny video screen, a  world-weary merwoman lights up endless cigarettes.

Hybrids don’t all take half-human form. Abstract human ideas, such as time, ownership, and money already mediate our experience of – and impact on – the natural world. Oregon-based Rachel Denny spent more than five months creating War Horse, flattening pennies on train tracks, hand-drilling pilot holes, then nailing and adhering the coins to the form.

In Kate MacDowell’s exquisite porcelain work, including Badgered, humanity’s potent impact on the natural world comes crashing into powerful romantic notions of it. These hybrids both sound the alarm and chronicle the clash, according to the Portland, Oregon-based artist – each object “a painstaking record of endangered natural forms and a commentary on our own culpability.”

People, often engaged in the most pedestrian of activities (riding a train, reading the paper), become fantastic and unfamiliar topped with animal heads, as in the clay and acrylic Tattoo. Italian sculptor Alessandro Gallo’s menagerie includes reptiles, birds, mammals, and more, drawing our attention, oddly enough, back down below the shoulders, to the visual diversity of just one species – us.

Her bronze AcornHeads long to be the real thing, says Leslie Fry, who divides her time between Vermont and Florida; they yearn to be released from their state of artistic abstraction and restored to the natural world. These fantastical sylvan hybrids – the seed of an oak, the seat of the mind – point to the inextricable ties between human consciousness and the natural world.