Into The Mythic With Rebecca Farr’s Animal Love Thyself

at Klowden Mann (through June 15)
Reviewed by Ellen C. Caldwell

When I wrote about Rebecca Farr’s fourth solo exhibit in November of 2016, I said it was everything. I saw the show immediately following the 2016 presidential election and Farr’s show created a nurturing embrace and a place for soul-and nation-searching. In her fifth solo exhibit at Klowden Mann, Animal Love Thyself, Farr’s exhibition again feels like everything we need in an age that is amidst Trump’s presidency, amidst the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and amidst a time that is more and more against the rights of people who are not hetero, cis, white men

Farr’s multimedia show consists of large plastered works of furniture and other household items, oil paintings on wood and canvas, and ceramic sculptures. With ambitious goals, Farr sets out to break down and interrogate biblical stories and origin myths that have either cast, or in some cases even expelled, the body and the feminine as secondary and unnecessary. From the show’s press release, “Farr has made a study of the moments in which the body is asked to abandon itself as an act of spiritual development and offers an integrative remedy to an old wound.”

Dividing the gallery into different spaces, each featuring an overarching story and theme, Farr uses her mixed media to create domestic divisions throughout. Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a plaster garden of animals on the floor (made from plastered stuffed animals), aptly called Animal Greeting. It looks as if Farr dipped the animals generously into plaster so that they are rounded, globulous, and inviting. If you look closely, you notice things that hint at the exhibit’s overarching theme, such as a larger dog in an embrace with a smaller one on its lap, almost an animalistic homage to Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà, suggestive of the Virgin Mary holding a Christ figure in its lap.

The animals gather in this garden, near hanging ceramic braids on the wall, and a beautiful painting indicative of both Farr’s style in general and this show specifically. This work, Promised Land I, ties in all of the colors and feelings of the show, welcoming viewers to enter the Judeo-Christian tale of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. In a living-room like setting, a plastered lamp and table suggest both Adam and Eve’s presence and absence at the same time. Is this the garden from which they were expelled or is this the domestic space they inherited via expulsion? Both options feel empty and hollow, yet also with the suggestion of hallowedness.

There are really special moments throughout the show — ones that require the viewer to engage personally and poetically with the work and domestic spaces Farr has created. Moving deeper into the gallery, Farr dedicates one area to the Coronation of the Virgin. This is a massive project to reclaim the female body and its creative power, thus rewriting that reclamation into new mythologies, but Farr does so in the gentlest and subtlest of ways.

Mary’s vanity table awaits us, a plastered girl’s table covered in organic ceramic tools suggestive of both male and female reproductive organs. Through this table alone, viewers are asked to consider Mary’s role in this virgin birth. Farr returns to her the powers of fertility, birthing, of life, and of creation. Around the corner, as if stepping into Mary’s dressing room, we are confronted with a plastered chaise lounge with a ceramic crown resting atop. Paintings also hang above, including one of the more figurative suggestions of Mary entitled The Moment She Realized She Was a Girl. This work made me gasp and also breathe a huge sigh of relief upon seeing it. It is again everything for this moment now.

In the work, composed of subdued shades of blues and reds, Mary wears her crown, which in this case, as on the chaise, is actually a pelvic crown. Thus again and again, Farr deconstructs and reconstructs the biblical renderings of Mary to reimbue her reproductive rights, her choice, and her primordial creation.

Mary’s hands hold her uterus and pelvic area powerfully, as her inner organs shine through in a bright reddish pink hue, suggesting the confusion of power, privilege, confusion, and curse that come to pubescent young women through the arrival of their periods. This is a quiet, contemplative, and horrifying moment that many women can probably relate to, as Mary holds what feels like all life within her, and also without her. This is that moment when girls realize what it means to be a woman in this society. What it means to hold the power and pain of life and yet also be the dehumanized object of the gaze. It is about the things we carry and inherit, and the things we ought to reject. Farr’s work is an exploration of what it means to be a girl and later a woman in the Western world, through its art, culture, and storytelling. What does it do, then, when Farr retells a story that traditionally casts Mary merely as a vessel to fill, or a womb to be claimed, and instead makes her a sexual creator of life and a god herself?

In Farr’s words, Mary “is reduced to just being a docile vessel, devoid of earthly pleasure, power or desire — just a willing open vessel, soft and gentle perpetually bowing the head. For me this is one of the most dramatic wounds in the bible. For women, but I feel for humanity in general. By dismantling the power of the feminine as co-creator of life and generator within her body, by taking away her desire and power of her pelvis as a seat of incredible power so many aspects of human experience are reduced and degraded. Taking sex away from her (from all of us) and sticking her up in the sky as the queen of heavens feels directly connected to why whales are dying and oil is being sucked out of the ground. The sacred is not seen in the physical from that moment on.”

In a 2015 New Yorker interview with I love Dick and Transparent writer and director Jill Soloway, Ariel Levy discusses Soloway’s creative role as a director. Soloway explains how women “are naturally suited to being directors” because of their devotion to storytelling and narrative as children. They continue, “We all know how to do it. We fucking grew up doing it! It’s dolls. How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the fuck happened?” In Animal Love Thyself, Farr asks us the same kinds of questions, only they are older. How in the world did men recast man as the creator of life in the most ancient biblical stories and origin myths? Were men so threatened by, and jealous of, the power women held symbolically in their hands, as in The Moment She Realized She Was a Girl, that they rewrote this primordial tale with men as the creators?

Farr describes this work as “a victory and a prayer for a new path. I feel we are on the brink of new stories; this painting holds both the memory of this trauma and the seed of a new path, the potential for a new myth.”

From Mary’s rooms, visitors enter into the space of the Last Supper. A large table with ceramic place settings greets us and thirteen ceramic pairs of footprints stand at the ground, quietly urging viewers to stand behind them and to look to the paintings on the other side of the table. These works reconsider the famous subject and imagery of the Last Supper itself. Farr’s paintings are a rewriting of the great (men) of art history. Paintings and subjects are slightly reminiscent of those painters Farr said she studied at this time, like Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Titian, Bacon, Auerbach, Freud, Doig, and Turner. (She says of this process that she “did not want anything to be too heavily associated with a specific work,” but that “the old masters were a marinade.”)

Farr’s works are indeed a new and fresh take on these past works. In Feast I, she suggests a Last Supper theme through familiar table settings and angles, however she presents an orgy of legs and bodies coming together to “feast” in a more primordial, natural, and sexual way, again welcoming both the animal and the feminine back into these stories. The show’s press release notes that in the exhibition, “Farr enacts installations throughout the gallery space that invite the viewer to join her in ritually correcting the foundational Western investment in mind/body duality, and the eviction of the animal and the feminine from the seat of consciousness.” This is truly one of those big moments in the show.

And the ceramic footprints are ones I continually came back to. They silently beckoned me.

Something about their ghost-like suggestions of the apostles was moving and inviting. On the one hand, it felt like the incantation of an otherworldly presence and on the other, it felt like an invitation to standby and take my seat at the table as well. Here, these prints rest on the ground, as if feet of all sizes and makes stepped into earthy wet clay and left the imperfect shells and shapes of their feet behind. They seem to act as a directive not only to look at the paintings before us, but also to look within as in Self Reflection I, where Farr paints Mary as a child-like, nearly genderless Buddha that resides within us all, seeing herself more truly through a reflection. These footprints are also a welcoming to embody these ideals regardless of one’s religious beliefs, to take a seat at this table, whose religion has turned (and is still turning) so many away throughout history. It is a more inclusive welcoming for both Mary and her full, true self, and for all outliers, of all genders and sexualities. It is a call and invitation to take a seat at this once-restrictive table of biblical proportions and of the exclusive Western canon of art history, pathology, and mythology.

Through her Last Supper, Farr makes room for us all.

Animal Love Thyself is at Klowden Mann (Culver City, CA) through June 15th, with an artist talk on Saturday, June 1st at 4:00pm. Rebecca Farr(b. 1973, Glendale, CA) was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and lives and works in Los Angeles. She has exhibited in Los Angeles at Klowden Mann, Five Car Garage, Maiden LA, ForYourArt and PØST, in Seattle at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, SAW Gallery and Velocity Studio, along with presentations at multiple art fairs throughout the United States.

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