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Asses on display

A herd of life-sized donkey sculptures comprise Christian Holstad’s latest exhibit The Terms of Endearment at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Goldman Warehouse – his first alone in the U.S. But rather than creating rough, realistic hides, Holstad cloaks his donkeys in menswear tailored around chicken wire armatures.

The Pieces

The result justifies the exhibit name; Holstad’s donkeys are as endearing as Eeyore and instead of using faces, he uses the posturing of his donkeys to capture expressions; some with demure down-turned heads, others with muzzles up, as if mid-bray.

Visitors must resist the urge to reach out to pet the soft, gray fabric sculptures, which rest on mossy green blanket bases, complete with fuzzy dandelions that poke through the cloth. Silky neckties in classic reds and blues serve as tail and mane accents, and hard, shiny leather shoes become hooves.

Holstad makes no attempt to hide the fact that his media, purchased from thrift stores, once clothed those caught in the rhythm of hum-drum office life. Buckles and buttonholes are conspicuously left intact, a row of buttons from the vest of a three-piece suit serves as one donkey’s spine, some shoelaces remain strung through hooves.

As the exhibit progresses, the donkeys transform. Their carefully tailored hides loosen, leaving whole sleeves and pant legs unfurled. The green material of the bases gradually creeps up their flanks, eventually showing through cracks between the donkeys’ joints, bursting through seams of suit material. The dandelions become unrestricted by the mossy bases, and instead spurt from rumps and later, heads.

Eventually, the donkeys become even more deconstructed, with bits of the chicken-wire armature exposed. By the end of the line, the donkeys appear to be green donkeys on gray bases, a complete reversal of the original pieces of the installation.

Set apart from the donkeys is one part of The Terms of Endearment, a retro 1950s-era jukebox covered in yellow fur-like material. From the jukebox emanates the androgynous voice of jazz singer Nina Simone, filling the room with a nostalgic, melancholy feeling.

On the walls surrounding the donkey installations are black and white drawings on newsprint, which, upon further examination, appear to be rubbed out photos clipped from newspaper pages. Unlike the charming donkeys or jukebox, these drawings, part of the Eraserhead series, are unsettling. With their cloudy shades of gray and amorphous shapes, they closely resemble Stephen Gammell’s frightening illustrations from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories books of childhood.

An Explanation

Holstad’s original fascination with donkeys springs from scenes of the Nativity, from which he would collect donkey figurines. After amassing nearly 50, he was inspired to create sculptures.

“People these days identify more with donkeys,” Holstad said. “There are no real wise men left, no Jesuses left.”

The donkeys, according to Holstad, are meant to be metaphors for average people-an idea that he sought to convey using the humanizing fabric of menswear.

“Suits are almost like armor,” he explained. “The combination of undressing, taking the suits off, and the moss growing over where the suits were shows how they become more natural, more human.”

As for his use of dandelions, Holstad explained that his concept stemmed from their multiple meanings. “They are a weed to a lot of people, but kids make wishes on them.”

The jukebox is intended to represent hay, or feed for the donkeys, Holstad said. As one of the artist’s avocations, his inclusion of music seemed appropriate. In fact, the opening of The Terms of Endearment also included a DJ set by Holstad himself. According to Bonnie Clearwater, the director of MOCA and chief curator of the exhibit, as a child, Holstad wondered whether Simone’s soulful, cathartic voice belonged to a man or a woman. The very human emotions of the jukebox’s music serve to set the mood and show how humanity’s voice can be displaced within a machine.

Holstad explained the drawings in his Eraserhead series through an anecdote. “I got sick of seeing same people doing the same things in the paper,” he said. “It started off with me scratching out someone’s face, then erasing what I had scratched off and discovering that the ink erased off, too.” From then on, he looked at the original and formed ideas as they came to him.

An atypical exhibit, The Terms of Endearment’s multifaceted nature appeals to many different audiences, whether one is an art aficionado seeking meaning or just a kid who just likes looking at cute donkeys.

The exhibit, which runs until November 11, opened as part of the Wynwood Gallery Walk, which occurs the second Saturday of every month. The next Walk will be October 14. The Goldman Warehouse is located at 404 NW 26th St., downtown in the Wynwood Art District.

Hannah Bae can be contacted at h.bae@umiami.edu.

September 22, 2006

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The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami


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