Beth Cavener Stichter: Expressing human condition with animal forms
When I first stumbled across Beth Cavener Stichter’s work, I was floored. I immediately recognized the humanity of the expressions in the subtly anthropomorphized animal figures; the strength of the mood conveyed in each sculpture captivated me. Work that portrays human emotion, behavior, and expression using the image of an animal has always been fascinating to me: sometimes, the vehicle of the human body seems less ideal than that of an animal to express feeling. And yet the human-ness present within these animal figures is undeniable, both in pose and alterations to the anatomy. Perhaps it is because in many pieces, the animals are portraits of the artist or close friends, based on conversations about insecurities, sexuality and gender, fantasies, and other intimate topics.
Reading statements and interviews from Stichter herself, one finds a trove of fascinating explanations of the artist’s methods and the intent behind the pieces, as well as interesting points on common reactions to the work.
Stichter’s artist statement:
There are primitive animal instincts lurking in our own depths, waiting for the chance to slide past a conscious moment. The sculptures I create focus on human psychology, stripped of context and rationalization, and articulated through animal and human forms. On the surface, these figures are simply feral and domestic individuals suspended in a moment of tension. Beneath the surface they embody the impacts of aggression, territorial desires, isolation, and pack mentality.
Both human and animal interactions show patterns of intricate, subliminal gestures that betray intent and motivation. The things we leave unsaid are far more important than the words we speak out-loud to one another. I have learned to read meaning in the subtler signs; a look, the way one holds one’s hands, the tightening of muscles in the shoulders, the incline of the head, the rhythm of a walk, and the slightest unconscious gestures. I rely on animal body language in my work as a metaphor for these underlying patterns, transforming the animal subjects into human psychological portraits.
I want to pry at those uncomfortable, awkward edges between animal and human. The figures are feral and uneasy, expressing frustration for the human tendency towards cruelty and lack of understanding. Entangled in their own internal and external struggles, the figures are engaged with the subjects of fear, apathy, violence and powerlessness.
Something conscious and knowing is captured in their gestures and expressions. An invitation and a rebuke.
Two of the artist’s answers from this interview were also of particular interest to me:
Regarding why animal forms are used for portraits of people:
There is a sense of Otherness when you see something that isn’t quite normal; when I was doing more human figurative work, I would slightly distort body shapes, and as soon as I did, people would stop identifying with the images. They didn’t want to imagine that altered figure as themselves. It didn’t take much – even sheer nakedness would become alienating. In order to try to coax people into empathizing with the work, I switched to using the animal form to express the human condition.
People often ask me, “How do you know animal anatomy so well?” and I just chuckle. If you were to see a real goat next to my sculptures, you’d see that something is terribly wrong. These figures are human bodies that have been subtly morphed into other creatures. They have belly-buttons, collarbones, and surgical scars that I bear on my own body. Most of them have human genitalia. A good deal of the time, these details escape immediate notice.
Regarding the choice of animals in the imagery:
It all stems back to when I was a really young — we moved every two years of my life, all the way up until high school. I was always in different schools, which meant I would always be the outsider, the stranger. In response I developed a defense mechanism in order to classify people into groups, in order to figure out how I fit into that situation — more subconsciously than consciously. Since I was a child at the time, these categories were defined in terms of animals, because all the picture books I read categorized human behavior this way. You know, the pigs are this human character type, the wolves are this other type. I’m interested now in what that says about the person making the distinctions rather than the animal being personified.
When I was in graduate school I decided to make the shift into using animal forms, but I was worried about doing it because there are so many animals and cultural associations with particular species – how would I establish developed characters if I used a random animal every time? So I chose three distinct animals that would embody three different personality types: the victim, the bully, and the manipulator. At the time I chose the hare, the wild boar, and the goat to represent those three character types. They were way over-simplified, but it was fun to subvert that – how could I make a manipulative victim? Or a bully-manipulator?
Much more work, as well as information about individual pieces or exhibitions and the artist’s practice, can be found on Stichter’s web site.