Nature reaches out in Natasha Bowdoin's "Maneater" at Mass MoCA

NORTH ADAMS — In her new paper-cut collage mural in the Hunter Hallway at Mass MoCA, Houston, Texas-based artist Natasha Bowdoin brings all of her influences into a large-scale swirl of flora and fauna that, as she says, is "like something you have to face up against."

Bowdoin's piece, called "Maneater," after the Hall and Oates hit in the `80s, features her fantastical plants placed firmly on the long wall. Some parts are either overlaid or extending out from the wall to create a flattened 3D effect that gives the impression it is growing beyond its placement and out into the room.

"When they're just flat on the wall, that kills them pretty quickly or makes them static in a way I don't like," Bowdoin said. "I like the aggressiveness of them creeping towards you, instead of just creeping in front of you."

Bowdoin loves scientific imagery from a time before the camera became its main compiler. The human hand and all its flaws and glories are what winds its way through her source material, a mix of 19th-century botanical, zoological and marine life illustrations — the work of what Bowdoin refers to as "hybrid artist-scientists" — alongside children's books and textile patterns.

"There's human error in trying to document, getting these weird idiosyncrasies, not quite getting it right," Bowdoin said, "or looking at nature as a mirror to see oneself in, so you get these weird images that are not very natural at all, though they were meant to be, to a certain extent, documentation."

What results when these kinds of images are filtered through Bowdoin's mind and then released through her painting are parts of nature that seem both real and absurd at the same time.

"They're also hyper artificial at the same time," said Bowdoin, "so they become these weird amalgams of real species, but also cartoon versions of those species."

The question Bowdoin seems to be asking is whether these flowers are friend or foe? Do they release a sweet smell meant to please you or lure you into Venus Flytrap-like jaws? That's where the Hall and Oates reference comes in, an upbeat pop tune about a woman who eats men alive. The lyrics don't give any why or what for, but suggests this is a bad thing. Bowdoin might be doing the opposite, aligning her devotion to respect for nature with the cartoon image of a wild woman seeking revenge.

"I feel like there's this feminist thread that's running through it," she said, "especially working in the tradition of cut paper, that in itself has a lot of gender ascribed to it. I think that ascribing gender to a material is ridiculous, but now because of the current state of the world, I felt like I want to claim my tribe a little bit and position myself within that group because I feel like it's important to do right now."

Different from her usual presentation, Bowdoin is going to include some wall text to guide people in viewing the piece. It's a small amount, and she hopes that the art itself is still the dominant feature of the experience rather than the brief explanatory statement. Bowdoin is not typically a political artist, so it's with some concern that she even goes there in a work like this, usually preferring to let her pieces be, and let the viewers take away what they will.

"When I'm in my studio, those things are not sitting heavily on my shoulders," said Bowdoin. "When I was trying to think about how an artist makes work in today's climate and how to make work responsibly, I thought I'm not going to change my complete practice to somehow all of a sudden be this kind of artist-activist, but if I can change myself in a small way that contributes to that then I want to do that."

Bowdoin is more comfortable with viewers who have a personal relationship with the art, and her favorite interaction during installation has been with a Mass MoCA guard who suggested that her art would be great in a bird store, which thrilled Bowdoin just as much as any political interpretation. She doesn't want the art to become subservient to the ideas behind it; she wants people to have their own ideas.

"That's awesome. I would never have thought of that, but I love that idea. Those things are probably the most exciting moments. Yes, I would love to make something for a bird store."


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