Bear Kirkpatrick: The Human Diorama

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Bear Kirkpatrick, Untitled, 2014. Courtesy 555 Gallery

Viewing photographs and videos by Bear Kirkpatrick reminds me of a magic show. I know there are tricks behind each sleight of hand, but because the performance is so adroit, surrendering to the fantasy is easy. Kirkpatrick also has a family lineage that traces back to an amalgam of heretics, puritans, judges, and witches. Opposition and conflict are literally in his blood, and he’s made them an intrinsic part of his creative process.

The Human Diorama set the stage for his exhibition at 555 Gallery this summer. Two large female figures are head-locked to resemble a pair of fighting antelopes. With their heads hidden behind a single shock of blond hair, it looks as though it could be the id struggling with its superego. Similar psychological battles are at work in the series Hierophanies I and II. Kirkpatrick photographs female friends and acquaintances in remote, uncultivated locations. The addition of artificial light against a dark and moody landscape creates a heightened sense of theater, where figures morph into mythological versions of themselves struggling toward a more primal existence.

For the largest group of portraits, titled The Old Ones, head coverings and thick layers of clay on naked torsos become a canvas on which Kirkpatrick embeds allegorical imagery around a pristine face. His post-production handiwork is so skillful the results are seamless. Most of the imagery comes from 16th- and 17th-century paintings, like saints and sinners from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch or a wintry Dutch landscape by Hendrick Avercamp. Recently, he began using his own landscape photographs – of barren trees surrounding a vernal pond, for example – rather than borrowing imagery from paintings. There is a lot to look at, and parsing through the iconography is part of the pleasure of this work, which invites viewers to get lost in a parallel reality.