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Be the Animal 

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the hands of Disney illustrators, anthropomorphism is cute, entertaining. In the hands of sculptor Beth Cavener Stichter, the use of animals to articulate the human condition is powerful, visceral, evocative and sometimes disturbing.





Pleasure, for example, is a large jackal-like form, its body hunched in an exaggerated curve, tail submissively tucked; teeth bared, mouth and eyes wide open, alert. Around its neck is cinched a leather belt. Is the title ironic? How can this be pleasure? And who could derive what kind of pleasure from the animal's contortions?





"There are primitive animal instincts lurking in our own depths," Stichter writes, "waiting for the chance to slide past a conscious moment." From the statement accompanying her solo exhibition opening tomorrow at the Art Spirit Gallery, she explains: "The sculptures I create focus on human psychology, stripped of context and rationalization, and articulated through animal and human forms."





The appeal of Stichter's work is visceral, in your gut. Like the better reality TV shows or the sensational Web-based confessional blog, "PostSecret," we can't help but look, even though we know it's going to be uncomfortable, awkward, tense.





The catalog for "A Modest Proposal," the 2007 exhibition for which Pleasure was first created, describes the premise for the work. Stichter elicited people's fantasies and fetishes; thus Pleasure (according to the exhibition catalog) relates to autoeroticism. Yet far from being salacious, the sculpture goes beyond expressing sexual pleasure and pain to something broader: the tension of a moment somewhere between pain and pleasure.





Stichter embraces the awkward, heightening tension through use of contrast, scale, surface texture and exaggerated postures or constricting elements like hooks, boxes or belts. Stichter's work appeared last year at the Smithsonian Art Museum's Renwick Gallery; the curator there, Jane C. Milosch, stated in the exhibition catalog that "the dramatic postures and predicaments of [Stichter's] animals elicit strong emotional reactions because they remind us of human vulnerability."





Stichter explores her own vulnerability too. In Diminuendo, a small, reclusive antelope species makes anything but a "diminished" entrance, dragging behind it a jumble of cans. The piece reflects Stichter's having felt "embarrassed, awkward and fumbling" after having relocated to a new house and studio -- a process that impacted her art making.





It's an arduous process, her art making, interesting in that it parallels her intellectual process, which starts with an idea and a small model. Stichter immerses herself in sculpting, enlarging and building onto her model, refining the form until she cuts it into sections.





She describes the intensity of being inside an animal as she hollows its interior, pressing from the inside out to form its exterior. The final pieces are fired, reassembled and finished. Color and finish quality is significant; sometimes it's bold, like the rusty red with black on the cowering hare entitled i am no one. She prefers matte surfaces, as in the painstakingly developed patinas on the series of limited-edition bronzes she is debuting at the Art Spirit.





Stichter's process may remind viewers of the shaman's ritual of becoming the animal -- and indeed, she has written about "thinking through the skin of an animal," during which time she loses her sense of self. That may explain some of the intensity we feel when experiencing her work.





Sometimes the intensity itself is the subject matter. In A Rush of Blood to the Head, two pastel-colored goats kiss sweetly. This softness contrasts sharply with the pair's obvious maleness (which is obviously aroused). In a previous interview about the piece, Stichter talked about exploring this challenging subject matter as well as why the subject is challenging to the audience and to her. (Robert Mapplethorpe's metaphoric photographs of flowers are one thing; his explicitly homoerotic images are quite another.) Stichter said she experiences "frustration with her own limited experiences, inhibitions, fears, and prejudices that create a barrier between understanding and communicating with others."





Rarely is an artist so candid about process. It's this rawness -- combined with the highly accomplished crafting of the work itself -- that makes Beth Cavener Stichter's sculptures so powerful and so expressive of humanity.





"Apologia" by Beth Cavener Stichter will be on display from July 11-Aug. 9 at the Art Spirit Gallery, 415 Sherman Ave., Coeur d'Alene. Artist reception: Friday, July 11, from 5-8 pm. Gallery hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays from 11 am-6 pm; Fridays until 9 pm. Free. Visit www.theartspiritgallery.com or call (208) 765-6006.

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