In its newest exhibition Progression, Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art presents the work of artist Carolyn Lavender, whose artistic prowess and multiplicity of materials and content is manifested in a collection of work spanning over twenty years. The Director of phICA, Ted Decker, sought to show how an artist’s career changes over time through the inclusion of the artist’s newer and older works in a retrospective exhibition. Lavender’s drawings and multi-media, two-dimensional artworks epitomize not only how an artist’s techniques and artistic interests are actively in flux, but also how an artist’s identity, intrinsically connected to her art, progresses through the years of artistic production to reach a more authentic self.
Lavender’s portrait series Teacher from 2003 and her latest painting The Woods are two fitting examples, and the most impressive works in the exhibition in my opinion, of how she incorporates complex narrative into her art while continuously experimenting with new formats and techniques. Lavender created the Teacher series in response to the 2000 Presidential elections. Each of the fifteen self-portraits, painted with graphite, gouache, and acrylic on canvas, depicts Lavender’s reaction to the election debacle. While her outward sedate expressions remain haunting, glimpses of her inward psychological and emotional state can be seen in her gaze, which confronts the viewer straight on, and the slight variations of the angle of her smile or frown. The portraits are labeled with various adjectives that describe Lavender, such as “Open minded”, “Demanding”, “Liberal”, “And Teaching Your Children.” These labels situate Lavender’s identity within a political context and in contra to the winning, conservative political party of the 2000 elections.
Before I discuss The Woods, it’s worth examining another set of self-portraits, also from 2013, called Untitled, in which Lavender appears in multiple self-portraits with animal heads resting on her head. These heads are of different animal species, such as gorilla, raccoon, and tiger. In the exhibition, Untitled is displayed in between Teacher and The Woods; hence, Untitled can be interpreted as a middle point in Lavender’s progression of researching and rendering her own identity in visual form and then slowly merging this identity with the animal world.
In The Woods painting, Lavender has escaped the civilized world, with its politics and ideological beliefs, and is now liberated from self-imposed identity labels. The painting is part of her The Woods series. Another painting from the series, Preservation Woods, was on view at the Tucson Museum of Art in 2015. As indicated by the series’ title, the paintings depict animals in the woods, but there is a catch: all the animals are taxidermy. For instance, the painting in the phICA exhibition depicts several deer heads hanging from tree trunks. Similar to how Lavender’s identity is in a way liberated, the animals have been liberated from decorating domestic spaces and have been returned to their natural habitat. The overall monochromatic color palette unites the deer with the forest background, yet the deer heads, because of their missing bodies, look strange and unsettling.
By choosing to include taxidermy animals instead of living animals, Lavender is disrupting the harmonious view of nature that artists have painted throughout centuries. In her painting, the coexistence of animals with nature has been interrupted by humans, whose desire to possess the animals has transformed these creature into inanimate objects. This is the case too with Lavender’s drawing Baboon-Baboon in which a living baboon stands next to a sculpture of a baboon. The drawing, and the deer drawing below it, is part of Lavender’s Animal Pairings series, which explores the issue of how animals are objectified, as in zoos, for human pleasure and possession. The Baboon-Baboon drawing particularly beckons the question: What is the difference between the sculpture and the real animal if the real animal is too forced to be the object of our human gaze? With insightful questions like these, Carolyn Lavender’s Progression exhibition succeeds at questioning our own identity and our relationship with the animal world through her personal and professional journey of self-awareness and artistic growth. It will be exciting to see where Lavender’s work will take her in the next twenty years.