Janet Parker-Smith’s show, Little Wonders, 18 June – 6 July 2013 at Brenda May Gallery, Sydney, brings to mind the mouse with an ear growing on its back from 1997.
That experiment was not the result of genetic engineering, as was readily assumed, but instead a form of collage. The naturally hairless mouse, with no immune system to reject the ear, simply supplied the scaffolding for the ear to grow. In other words, scientific logic aligned with creative thinking.
The imaginative genesis of that experiment was one of numerous scientific developments that sparked the imagination of artists and the broader public at the time. That animals and humans could grow body parts, not necessarily from their own species, feeds into a long history of fear and morbid fascination around the transformation of humans into monsters.
For example, in the 1818 story Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, a monster is made by Victor Frankenstein in a scientific experiment to re-animate body parts assembled together to create a new creature.
Interestingly Parker-Smith’s work also encompasses the period of Mary Shelley’s story using historical settings that span the 1700s to the 1960s; these settings are similarly inhabited by hybrid creatures, in this case combining humans, cats, dogs, birds and insects. Parker-Smith’s tableaux reflect her concerns about the parlous state of the world with a particular examination of our behaviour toward each other and other animals.
She sources her material from a variety of fields that include social history, literature, geography and photographic memorabilia. The settings range from museums, classrooms and landscapes represented by topographical maps. Her processes involve collage, digital, silkscreen and artist’s/altered books.
A recurring motif throughout the work is that of an incongruous gathering of characters in an equally incongruent setting. It is a world in which adults are depicted as either indolent or buffoonish. Children, on the other hand, are seen as trusting and uncorrupted.
Animals take on a variety of roles, as can be seen in The Traveller, in which the head of an adult man, dressed in a suit and tie, has been replaced with an oversized rabbit’s head, and a miniature zebra rides him piggyback. A leopard closely observes ‘The Traveller’ who is pedalling a ‘boneshaker’ bicycle whilst a bird of prey hovers at the edge of the topographical map upon which they all float, suspended in time and space.
Lost in Transition can be seen as emblematic of Parker-Smith’s themes and subject matter as it represents the transition from child into adult. It is the only image in which the visible human face has not been overlaid with that of another animal, as the young girl featured is yet to fully emerge into the world. Parker-Smith has said that covering the human face with that of a bird, cat or dog, as she often does, represents both a process of transformation from one state to another and a pervading sense of displacement for all her characters in the worlds they inhabit.
In this screenprint a teenage girl stands in sombre preoccupation soon after emerging from a large egg, the remnant shell with its distinctive pattern behind her. Upon her hair sits a giant fly, at first glance akin to a hair ornament given its odd angle to her head. She appears unconcerned about the fly or its size, provoking the thought that it may have gestated with her inside that recently hatched egg.
Despite Parker-Smith’s dismal view of adults and their motivations her work does allow for optimism and new beginnings through the acts of children, as can be seen in Strangers in a Strange Land.
In this collage two children stand in a liminal space facing away from the viewer encircled by an enormous map. They hold hands, an act of companionship not evident in any other work, and appear sanguine about their impending travel dressed in winter coats and sturdy shoes. They face a world dominated by human folly and greed but despite this, as Parker-Smith puts it, offer new ways of seeing and being in the world.
Pia Larsen, Sydney-based artist,
Lecturer, Printmaking, National Art School