Amid the holiday glitter it’s nice to find something a little less sugary. At Fulcrum Gallery this month young Tacoma artist Kellë McLaughlin offers up a big serving of sharp-eyed humor etched like a tattoo on woodcuts and clay in “Bestial Mirrors,” where she explores the fine line between our human and animal natures.
McLaughlin — a Yakima native just graduated from Pacific Lutheran University — is a draftsman at heart, and the nine large woodcuts in Fulcrum’s front gallery show her understanding of line. Inspired by friends, they’re portraits merging human with animal in a Holbein-esque way, bringing the inner depths of personality to the visual forefront with symbols and mythical beasts.
In “Mermaid and Flower” a bare-breasted woman with a thick, serpentine tail reclines like a 1940s pin-up girl, her cow-skull head turned artfully to one side, speaking of vanity, seduction and death. In “Crow and Beetle,” a man with a giant crow’s head grafted onto his muscly shoulders opens his beak wide to spew out (or swallow) a stream of small black birds. There’s a man with a lion’s head and eagle feathers — a contemporary griffin — laughing stoically with a trail of soft wisteria between his sharp teeth. There’s a boxer with the head of a rooster, staring eyes and “GONE” tattooed on his knuckles. (McLaughlin works at a tattoo shop, and her portraits wear body art as easily as they do animal body parts.) There are a suave tigress smoking in a swimming pool; a fierce jackrabbit with demure eyes but two pistols and “Kill Them All” written over her chest; an innocent, moonlit stag-man.
All the portraits are incredibly detailed, with borders and corners (flowers, beetles, snails) that elaborate on the characters like medieval illuminations of saints. McLaughlin’s lines are thick but highly descriptive, with aggressive shading that contrasts with the bold geometry of her foreground settings (tiles, waves, flowers). And the seriousness of her intent turns what could be mere variations on an old children’s mismatched animal flip-book into a psychological bestiary.
The work doesn’t translate well into three dimensions — the three ceramic busts of women with bear, gorilla and fish heads are too close to life-like to be believable — but in the back gallery (where you can also find her original woodcuts and tools) McLaughlin creates the perfect antithesis of humans acting like animals: animals adorned like humans. In a wall installation that’s witty as well as well-crafted, seven ceramic crows poke their heads out of the gallery’s white wall, squawking angrily or gazing bemusedly at each other. With a bronzy underglaze, black oil paint and hand-finished texture, McLaughlin has created a surface that looks like bronze at five feet away, and like carved wood at two feet. One bird has a half-body stuck in the wall; another spread-eagles overhead, its claws, wings and tail emerging from the wall as if someone had blasted it backwards. That’s funny enough, but all have glittery gold nose (beak) piercings and gold claw polish — an anthropomorphic touch that once again blurs the line between savage and civilized.