As the art world continues to evolve, it is artists like Robin Hextrum who push the boundaries of traditional representation and invite viewers to rethink their perceptions. In her latest exhibition, "Animal Kingdom," Hextrum presents a compelling narrative where animals are no longer mere subjects but the protagonists of revisionist histories. In this interview, we explore the inspirations, messages, and techniques behind Hextrum's transformative works.
In "Animal Kingdom," you've presented animals as protagonists in revisionist history scenarios. How do you think this portrayal challenges our traditional understanding of anthropocentrism?
When you go to a museum, you will see lots of portraits of humans in power, most of whom are white men. Civil rights activists and feminist art historians have rightly pointed out that women and people of color are rarely canonized in the annals of art history as powerful subjects.
Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, has become world famous by reinserting people of color into famous historical paintings. In a way, I am doing something similar with animals.
If an animal is a subject in a historical painting, we see them being hunted, used for transportation, killed, or illustrated as a passive compositional element in the work. My work puts animals at the center of the composition, and as the active subjects. I want to give animals a sense of agency.
This challenges us to think about how comfortable we are with always being the most important species on the planet. We need to think about how we are as partners to other animals on this earth.
The idea of animals reclaiming spaces during the Covid-19 lockdown was a significant global observation. How do you envision the "Animal Kingdom" as a response or continuation of this phenomenon?
In many of these paintings, animals are reclaiming territory from humans. During Covid, animals took back streets, parks, airways, and waterways. This exhibition takes that a step further by showing animals taking over iconic sculptures, galleries, and museums. You will also see animals in other sites of luxury like palaces. This exhibition considers a world where animals are not on the edge fighting for scraps, but rather in the center of locations of power and prestige.
You have clearly been inspired by a lineage of artists who showcase animals in their work, from Rosa Bonheur to Martin Wittfooth. How do you see your work differing or adding a fresh perspective to this tradition?
Rosa Bonheur did beautiful paintings of powerful animals working or running in fields in the 19th century. Martin Wittfooth’s contemporary paintings of animals are very surreal and apocalyptic. I think my work contains some of the reverence for animals found in Rosa Bonheur’s work along with some of the surrealism found in Martin Wittfooth’s work. Rather than go apocalyptic, my work adds an optimistic vision where animals have taken over and started their own world according to their terms.
In your artist statement, you mention the humorous and absurd narratives in your works. How do you strike a balance between the fantastical and the earnest in your art, especially when dealing with serious topics like animal rights and ecological concerns?
I just try to trust my instincts. When I come up with an idea that may seem far-fetched, or a little silly, I will feel doubts creeping in. I try not to censor myself in my process and hope that what is resonating with me will resonate with others.
I also like to have variety in my work so that some of the work can appeal to different sensibilities. Maybe one viewer recoils at the serious pieces, but loves the humorous ones or vice versa.
And, even when my work has humor in it, there is something deeply sincere about the underlying message that carries across a sense of urgency to the viewer.
Your past work has demonstrated a reverence for the natural world and a focus on iconography of wealth and power. How do these themes intertwine or diverge in "Animal Kingdom"?
Many of the animal portraits in this exhibition show animals surrounded by icons of luxury and power. I think this work, like my previous work, is interested in questioning how we have allocated power and resources.
My work reveals a fascination with luxury and the excess. So much of the history of oil painting is focused on extreme wealth. My work pulls from that history but tries to put a different spin on it for the contemporary audience.
In some ways, I am pointing out how ridiculously over the top so much of the history of oil painting is. I want viewers to be more self-aware of the imagery they are taking in when looking at my work rather than just accepting it as a something pretty to look at in a gallery or museum.
I’m hoping to add enough of a contemporary spin on this imagery that it will initiate that self-awareness.
Given that animals in your paintings are often depicted in human-centric settings (like museums), how do you envision their relationship with the art world? Is it one of reverence, defiance, or something else entirely?
I think many of the paintings show a sense of defiance or indifference. In two of the paintings in this exhibition, animals have destroyed the artworks before them. You will see animals walking or crawling over sculptures as a sign that they do not value it the way we do.
It is as if they are saying that this art was not made for them, so they have the right to rebel against it. My painting, A Buffalo’s Perspective on American Progress, shows a buffalo who has destroyed a 19th century painting by John Gast called American Progress.
That painting by Gast glorifies colonization and the destruction both of native people and of millions of American bison. My painting shows a buffalo fighting back against the tide of history and providing a different perspective.
This aligns with the theme of the whole exhibition that tries to get at a new narrative from the animal’s point of view.
Your approach to animals has a strong ethical dimension, stemming from your vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. How do you hope to inspire or influence viewers who may not share this perspective?
My main hope is for everyone to act a little kinder to animals. Having had many conversations with staunch carnivores/omnivores, I recognize that people have strong emotional relationships to food, and they are often unwilling to make extreme compromises.
That said, just about anyone who has a pet will talk about the emotionally rich lives of their animal as if they are talking about their child. I see that contradiction very clearly now, but it took me some time to get there, and many people just never get there. They don’t think it is odd to love a dog and eat a pig when the two animals are quite similar in affection and intelligence.
One of my favorite books on this subject is called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy. She delves into the contradictory cultural taboos around meat in American society. I’m hoping to highlight that hypocrisy a bit or blur the lines for people so that arbitrary division can feel strange.
I think many people are also afraid of cutting out all pleasure and that stops them from taking any steps towards helping animals. Even though I am vegan, I love when I meet pescatarians, vegetarians, or people who just eat less meat generally. They are still making a difference. Americans are obsessed with perfectionism. I’m a strong believer in the phrase “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We don’t have to be so purist about it, and we can still do much better.
In America alone we eat roughly 10 billion animals a year. That is just staggering how much we gorge on meat. At the end of the day, I would love to see everyone eat less meat and be kinder to the animals and environment around them.
The idea of anthropomorphizing animals is intriguing. Why do you think society has overcorrected in its avoidance of anthropomorphizing, and how does your art challenge this?
Humans tend to make other humans or animals more “other” when they need to justify their subjugation. Particularly in the industrial west, animals have been beasts of labor and the subjects of brutal scientific experiments. Many of the most gruesome scientific experiments in the 19th century were executed under the assumption that animals did not feel pain the way we did. It would be too horrifying to acknowledge true sentience and feeling because that would magnify the atrocities we have committed towards animals and make us question our systems too much.
One of my favorite books on this topic is Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By Frans de Waal in 2016. He points out that human-made intelligence tests for animals do not properly test their intellectual abilities and therefore often underestimate them. We also see intelligence through a human lens and praise animals who have similar approaches to intelligence. Yet, we denigrate the capacities of other intelligent creatures when they are too different from ourselves.
It would be as if bats kept trying to test us for echolocation and concluded we were idiots because we couldn’t echolocate and just babbled incoherent noises from our mouths. We do something very similar when we test animal intelligence and give them the incorrect tools to perform a task or don’t think about the amazing abilities they have that differ from our own.
I also find it funny how insecure we become when animals do show equivalent or higher intelligence in a given area despite all the hurdles we throw at them. It pricks at something deep inside us and shows how uncomfortable we are with admitting we are not the smartest animals at every task all the time. As a human species, we need to be more humble, and willing to consider the intelligence and sentience right before our eyes.
How does the title "Animal Kingdom" resonate with the overarching themes in the exhibition? Given the dual reference to taxonomy and fantasy, what message or sentiment are you aiming to convey?
This is a fantasy world where animals have taken over the main positions of power and authority. Humans appear to be missing or irrelevant in this world. It is also a way of reminding us to decenter the human perspective. When I came up with the title, I really liked the dual reference to taxonomic classifications and hierarchy. We too are animals and live in this animal kingdom with other species.
In terms of technique, how did you approach the creation of these paintings in comparison to your previous works? Were there any new challenges or revelations during the process?
My approach to art making changed quite a bit this year because of personal and professional changes in my life. Life always presents new challenges for artists to overcome, and we must keep making work through them.
This past year while I worked on this exhibition, I served in my first year as chair of the art department at Regis University, and I had to finish these paintings through the nausea and fatigue of the first trimester of my pregnancy. It has been a really difficult to keep up the momentum given those changes. I tried to focus on the symbiotic relationships where I could. My painting calmed me down when I got stressed out from the pressures of my new leadership position, and it also gave me something to distract myself when I was in my peak stages of nausea.
My pregnancy also forced me to cut out several toxic pigments I had previously relied upon, to use a non-toxic solvent called eco-solve, and to use a non-toxic varnish. Finding the time and energy to make any art is always hard, and I’m realizing I just need to be more patient with myself and recognize how involved my technical process is.
I think every show I have is an exercise in time management and patience because my technical process is so involved, and I often paint on a large scale. I learned that I need to give myself more time to make my work in the future, so I don’t find myself juggling too much at once.
Your deep connection to animals is evident. Are there specific stories or experiences from your personal life that have further shaped or influenced the narratives presented in "Animal Kingdom"?
Like many kids raised in the 90s, I grew up watching movies like “Watership Down” and “Fern Gully.” I remember watching movie after movie that really pushed a narrative around appreciating animals and nature. I think I just took that more literally that other kids. When I was seven, I refused to eat pork for a month after seeing the film “Gordy” about a livestock pig who wanted to find his family. I also grew up with a dog and several cats that I adored.
My twin sister turned me on to vegetarianism when I was 14 by telling me about the horrors of factory farming. About 95% of American meat is factory farmed, so we are not talking about animals that have a great life and just “one bad day.” The brutal confinement and mistreatment of factory farmed animals made me sick to my stomach then and still does today. My mom rarely cooked meat for us, so when I did go vegetarian it did not feel like much of a sacrifice.
After high school, I went in and out of vegetarianism for a while, and then really recommitted about nine years ago and went vegan seven years ago. I just always felt this nagging contradiction when I did eat meat, and I feel much better mentally and physically now that I am not consuming animals. I did more research and found that the egg and dairy industries also mistreat animals, so I decided to go vegan. I make monthly donations to the Human League because they are doing great work developing legislation to combat factory farming practices.
I think most of us have a wall that blocks empathy for animals. Once you really let that wall down, it just feels better not to contribute to systems that harm them. It just feels good to have my actions aligned with my values. And, the new plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat make it easier to be vegan or vegetarian now that it was twenty years ago. That original fake meat used to taste like rubber, and now you can hardly tell the difference.
And finally, as artists continue to explore and reinterpret the world around them, how do you see the evolving role of animals in art? What's the next frontier for Robin Hextrum in this journey?
Right now, I am playing with depictions of mythical creatures, so there will be a degree of fantasy in my next series. I think animals and nature will always have a role in informing my work. I’m excited about the next body of work I am creating because it feels fun and liberating. I’m really letting my imagination run wild. I still don’t know exactly where this show is going, but I feel like I am onto something interesting and that is the best sign one can hope for in a new body of work.
Robin Hextrum giving an artist talk at her opening reception of "Animal Kingdom."
Robin Hextrum's "Animal Kingdom" is more than just an art exhibition; it's a bold statement on society's relationship with the environment and our fellow creatures. With a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, Hextrum urges us to recognize the value and dignity of animals in our shared ecosystem. As we reflect on the profound messages embedded in her works, we are reminded of the ever-changing dynamics between humans and animals and our responsibility to foster a harmonious coexistence.
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Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the artist, and do not necessarily reflect the views of our gallery. We do not endorse any person, brand, or service mentioned in the article.