The body of work that I created for my BFA Thesis exhibition is entitled Encounters. Each of the five pieces in this series begin as an 8x10inch ballpoint pen drawing of an animal that makes its home in the deep sea. This drawing is then blended using denatured alcohol, scanned into the computer and manipulated using digital media. The drawing is printed onto a 30x40inch sheet of watercolor paper and finally I flesh out the forms and some details using a brush and actual cephalopod (squid and cuttlefish) ink. The series was inspired by a very personal state – my intense, irrational phobia of the topic of UFO’s, otherworldly beings, and alien abduction which is paradoxically a topic that I find absolutely fascinating. There have been many nights where I have been enraptured by television documentaries about UFO’s, watching them until 2 or 3 a.m. and then regretted every minute once the lights were off and I was trying to sleep.
As I created this series I began to explore what exactly the psychological phenomena are that are responsible for my reaction to the idea of the paranormal. My research came up with three elements that serve as the pillars for my experience; pareidolia, the uncanny, and cognitive dissonance.
Pareidolia is a process of the human mind that is engaged when random or vague information is taken in by the brain. The mind operates under the assumption that there is an inherent structure to the data it receives so when there is no pattern an invented structure is forced upon the information. A more concrete and understandable example of this process is the tendency for people to notice shapes that resemble faces in random forms such as clouds or the stains left by water. This is of course prevalent in the UFO field because the vast majority of UFO sightings are the product of pareidolia. Odd clouds or other weather phenomena, flocks of birds at odd angles, or the lights from planes at night do not provide enough information to the individual to determine their identity so the mind takes over and tries to impose an identity upon them, sometimes arriving at “structured craft” as the answer. Oddly enough Carl Sagan the astronomer and astrophysicist proposed in his book “The Demon-Haunted World” that pareidolia was evolutionarily advantageous for early man. It is much safer to be briefly frightened after thinking that a shadow was an enemy than to be incapable of making that split-second recognition of a face and die as a result. This process is especially evident in my piece Untitled (Grimpoteuthis). The depicted animal is a dumbo octopus; something very alien and foreign compared to the things encountered by people in their day-to-day lives however the specific shapes of this animal’s body tend to be interpreted as something much more relatable – a puppy. The curve of the body on the left side is correlated with a puppy’s round head, the broad fin is related to an ear and the round, dark, reflective eye carries much of the emotive weight that man’s best friend does.
The second psychological phenomena is The Uncanny. This was a very popular topic in turn-of-the -century German psychiatry and Ernst Jentsch was the first to write about it. Jentsch identified the uncanny as a situation that created discomfort due to the presence of elements that are simultaneously familiar and strange. Sigmund Freud developed this concept further, pushing the term into its modern usage. For Freud many varied situations are classified as uncanny, even those as ephemeral as the repetition of a sequence of numbers occurring throughout the day in a way that seems meaningful or the moment when one is lost and accidentally and unknowingly retraces one’s steps. The Uncanny is one of the most potent causes of anxiety in my own mind when I think of alien abduction as a topic. The most common description of an alien visitor is one of the most uncanny visages I can imagine. The being is very familiar in its humanoid shape (head atop a body, two arms and two legs) but also so very strange (the almond shaped black eyes, minimalist facial features, egg-shaped head and lanky proportions) In the work the presence of the uncanny is evident in every piece through the emotive eyes placed on such alien animals but it is especially present in the hatchet fish drawing. The fish’s large eyes and gaping, down turned mouth are eerily reminiscent of a human face expressing extreme grief or mourning. Again it is simultaneity of the familiar and the strange that creates such discomfort.
Though Freud noted the negativity associated with the experience of the uncanny, it wasn’t until 1957 that the effects were truly explored in detail. American psychiatrist Dr. Leon Festinger identified that the negativity associated with the uncanny was present in a wide variety of mental states; cognitive dissonance is the term for the discomfort that comes from the mind trying to cope with two opposing notions at once. The foreign vs familiar dichotomy that is the hallmark of the uncanny being but one of these binary oppositions. Coincidentally the group that Festinger used as a case study “When Prophecy Fails” for his cognitive dissonance exploration was a UFO cult whose members had predicted a specific date for the end of the world. When that date came and went with no event, he observed the effects of the opposing concepts at work; their faith and devotion of resources to their cult vs the realization that the world is continuing as normal. Festinger identified fatigue, anxiety, hunger, anger, depression, and frustration among the symptoms of cognitive dissonance. All of the pieces in my series are loaded with binary oppositions which evoke a state of cognitive dissonance. The negative space of each image is an abstract field which can equally represent debris in the water with the animal or distant stars and nebulae (inner earth vs outer space), the process is both traditional and digital, the materials are synthetic (manufactured printer inks) and organic (ink from the squids) the drawing process is an exercise in tight control (ballpoint pen) and random chance (the chemical reaction of ink and alcohol).
Several artists were especially influential to me as I created these pieces, notably for my ambiguous negative space I looked to Vija Celmins a printmaker who creates a series of woodcut prints made of a black field with pinpoints of white which simultaneously exist as representational images of the night sky and purely formal explorations of shape and value. In developing my process of printing and adding hand-drawn elements I was inspired by John Bonath, a Denver photographer creates large canvas prints that he paints over with subtle pigment and gel medium to re-imbue the work with the artist’s hand. Finally discovering Alice Shirley, a London-based artist who used squid ink to draw a life-size giant squid carcass on paper drove me to use material associated with the subject to explore the binary opposition of the representation vs the thing-in-itself.