Wednesday, December 17, 2008

January Artists: Buggin' Out

It’s beautiful with an edge, the artwork made collaboratively by Jennifer Angus and John Hitchcock for SuperBug, a new exhibition opening January 23 at James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

The work combines hand-drawn images of insects by Angus, an associate professor in design studies at UW–Madison, with screen-printed layers of patterns derived from virus and bacteria by Hitchcock, an associate professor of art at UW–Madison.

Together, the artists explore the patterns—both visual and biological—of “superbug” bacteria. Their intricate, layered work is aesthetically appealing but also hints at a darker side by raising questions about health and disease in the twenty-first century.

Angus took some time before the exhibition’s opening to talk about the project.

How did this exhibition come about?

John Hitchcock and I started as assistant professors at the UW in the same year—2001. We met before school even started at a new faculty gathering. We became friends right away since we are both artists and both were new to Madison. Coincidentally it happened that we both teach screen printing. John teaches screen and relief printing in the art department and I teach what is essentially the same process in the design studies department, although most of what I print on is fabric.

In that first year John and I decided to have our classes do a collaborative project. It was successful and we did it for two more years. Our students demanded that if they had to work collaboratively then so should we! So we did! We did the same project as the students and found that we enjoyed working together. We have similar interests in the environment, pattern and minority cultures. It was easy for us to come up with ideas we wanted to discuss and make work about.

What is it about “superbug” bacteria that intrigues you?

For some time John has been interested in the connection between disease and the fact that disenfranchised people seem to get sicker more often. His experience is firsthand having grown up in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma next to the U.S. field artillery military base Fort Sill. In contrast I have a more literal interest in “bugs,” more properly known as insects, as they are the main material in my installation work. As a result we often use the literal image of an insect to refer to the transmitter of diseases.

We are interested in that transmission and how subtle yet deadly it can be. I grew up in Toronto, Canada. When SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit Toronto and Hong Kong simultaneously, my family’s daily lives were affected. Never has the world known such a potent disease. People standing in an elevator for less than one minute were infected and died. It is truly frightening. Warnings of an impending flu pandemic have been coming for years and it’s only a matter of time before it hits.

Superbugs are of course the scourge of hospitals. I think we are again drawn to the drama of their name, SUPER bugs, and their silent, deadly nature.

What draws you to subject matter such as insects?

I teach textile design at the UW yet I have been working with insects for the past ten years. I spent several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s in the area known as the Golden Triangle (where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, formerly Burma, meet) researching tribal dress. At that time I discovered a particular garment known as a “singing shawl,” worn by young women of the Karen tribe that is embellished with metallic beetle wings in place of beads or sequins. It was very exciting to find something utilized that was so naturally beautiful and readily available. Since then I have found other groups that use whole beetles or the wings applied to garments, headdresses and baskets.

Today I am amazed at the beauty, adaptability and the incredible camouflage of insects. The bottom line is that insects are a very potent material. We all have a reaction to insects because we all have experience with them. They have the power to provoke a reaction!

What ideas are you seeking to present in the show and what do you hope visitors walk away with?

Quite simply the enemy is rapidly gaining on us and our lines of defense are rapidly breaking down. The simplest act may have deadly consequences that will have a domino effect.

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

The rhyme suggests innocence lost not unlike “Ring around the Rosey,” which refers to The Black Death plague of 1347. Beyond insects John and I always use pattern as a background or backdrop. We take the images of deadly virus and form them into to beautiful lacy designs. The use of pattern is strategic because it also alludes to the history, recurrence (e.g. Black Death, flu pandemic 1918) and transmission of disease. Disease itself is often spread from person to person thus repeating the deadly chain of events again and again.

SuperBug runs Jannuary 23 to March 8 at the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. An opening reception will be held January 23, 5:30–7:30 p.m., with an artists’ talk starting at 6:30 p.m.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The January issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• A write-up on the Dane County Cultural Affair’s Commission’s 2009 art calendar—along with a photo of a gorgeous landscape painting.
• A piece by editor Brennan Nardi on Craig Wilson, a local photographer known for his aerial portraits taken with cameras attached to flying kites.
• A House of the Month feature on a downtown couple with an excellent—and eclectic—art collection.
• A profile on Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn of Walmartopia fame who are returning to the Madison stage in January.
• A poem by Madison poet laureate Fabu on President Barack Obama (listen to her poetry podcast).
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts, exhibitions and festivals taking place in January.

Tomorrow is also the launch of Spectrum, a special magazine celebrating diversity in Madison. And there’s lots of arts and entertainment to be found in it, including:
• Profiles on Club TNT, African Storytelling on Wheels, The Figureheads, Multico, ROARrrr, Dane Dances and La Movida.
• A piece on Native American dancer Art Shegonee and photographer Tom Jones.
• A look at young artists shaping the future of creativity in the city.
Madison Magazine and WISC-TV editorial director Neil Heinen’s tribute to jazz superstar Richard Davis.

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