Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fear Factors

“You will be creeped out.”

This was the promise Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator of collections Rick Axsom made me as we set up a time to discuss the museum’s newest exhibition, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

He didn’t disappoint.

As Axsom took me through a visual tour of the paintings, prints, photographs and other works in the show, I encountered more than my fair share of evil, scary, ghoulish, disturbing and, yes, very creepy imagery.

Surprisingly, the nearly one hundred works in the exhibition come from the museum’s permanent collection. “Who would have thought there’d be so much evil?” Axsom asked with a laugh.

A few years back, as Axsom and a colleague were reviewing the museum’s collection of works on paper, they realized a good portion was of a menacing nature. So MMoCA decided to create a show highlighting the work, naming the show after a line from Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

Drawing upon works from the early twentieth century to the present, Something Wicked demonstrates how evil is understood and represented by modern and contemporary artists. Furthermore, instead of exploring evil through a religious lens, taking a secular approach focusing on “the horrors of political history, the monstrous acts of the sociopath and the inner torments of the mind,” according to the museum.

It’s fascinating to see the breadth with which artists depict this single concept.

A few works are slightly whimsical, in the scary-but-fun vein of Halloween, according to Axsom. A good example is Chris Vassel’s untitled image of death skeleton. Standing in a furry coat in a snowstorm, the chilly guy is someone you can almost feel sympathy for.

Yet other artists offer heart-wrenchingly horrible scenes, such as Käthe Kollwitz’s etching in which a personification of death is ripping a mother away from her child or a series of photographs by Larry Clarke showing teenage heroin addicts.

Some pieces in the show reveal human-beast hybrids. The idea of nature gone awry was popular in the aftermath of World War II, when the threat of nuclear holocaust was a reality, Axsom said. In colorful works, evil military men have animal traits, women become pigs and men have the faces of birds.

But the collection I found the most frightening was a dream series of photographs by Arthur Tress. For his book, The Dream Collector, Tess interviewed children about their dreams and nightmares. He then constructed a few nightmare scenarios and had the very kids who dreamt them pose in the scenes for photos. A hockey player crouching over a steamy street gate is certainly unsettling but the image that unnerved me shows a hooded figure clutching a child on an empty street flanked by barren trees. I’m all for facing fears, but the kid who showed up for this photo shoot is a lot braver than I’ll probably ever be.

As we examined the works, Axsom raised intriguing questions about humans’ attraction to disturbing images, dangerous stories and scary movies. These and other ideas will be discussed in lectures and programs held in conjunction with the show, he said.

But one thing’s for sure: We’re all scared of something. And chances are you’ll find—and have the chance to confront—your fear at this exhibition.  

Something Wicked This Way Comes runs through April 12 at MMoCA, 227 State St. For more information, call 257.0158 or visit

Images top to bottom are an untitled work by Chris Vasell, Birds of Heaven by Robert Lostutter and Hockey Player by Arthur Tress.

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