4 JUNE - 31 AUGUST 2007
In his Summer Window installation, When the Animals Rebel, Los Angeles artist Mike Stilkey has arranged thousands of old books against a massive 16 X 44 foot wall built behind Rice Gallery’s glass façade. Using pen and ink and acrylics, Stilkey has painted the books’ spines to depict a scene where wild and domestic animals are, as he puts it, “taking back their land,” while humans with detached expressions continue their daily routines, seemingly oblivious to the animals’ presence. One man, depicted mid-stride holding a cigarette, appears to be concentrating more on his daily smoke than on the closely hovering birds from which he tilts his body slightly. Buildings curve and wobble; an elephant leisurely uses its own weight to squash the buildings beneath it. Other animals - cats, horses, a giraffe, skunk, pig, and an ostrich, to name a few - have emerged from a forest of tall, sinewy “candy berry” trees to fly, walk, creep, and crawl into the urban world they intend to reclaim.
Stilkey looks to his imagination to create his whimsical, yet poignant, portraits of animals and people. Trained as a photographer, he began to draw obsessively at age twenty and now works almost exclusively with pen and ink, acrylic paint, watercolor or pencil. Stilkey’s signature elongated, fragile-looking characters include humans and a repertoire of humanized animals - boxing giraffes, pensive pigeons, tiny horses, and fat cats. His depictions of world-weary men and women have an aura of decadence and eroticism associated with the cabaret of 1920s Berlin. Stilkey’s spindly, contour-lined figures are often compared to works by German expressionist painter Otto Dix (1891 - 1969), one of the main artists associated with that scene. Remarkably, Stilkey did not study art history and had never heard of the artist. Dix’s stylized portraits of “glitter and doom” are at once beautiful and brutal in their frank portrayal of human weaknesses; likewise, both compassion and the brokenness of the human condition can be seen in Stilkey’s characters, all of whom are sad, he says, because “they know too much.”
Stilkey’s empathy extends to objects grown beautiful with age or use, and he is a passionate collector of old records, cameras, and especially books, to which he is attracted:
… sometimes by the title, or more the look of it, the antiqueness of it, or the wear and tear of it. Sometimes there’s a weird illustration. I’ve got these books and I’ll never read them, but I want them for some reason and I’ve never known why. And then I started drawing on them.
Over the past several years the artist has purchased books at thrift stores and yard sales to use in his work in lieu of paper. In 2005, he published One Hundred Portraits, an artist book featuring portraits painted on the pages of books. After completing Portraits, Stilkey decided to paint on the books’ covers and spines as well. By stacking books on their sides and using the spines as one large surface area, the work becomes both painting and sculpture. Stilkey recently exhibited his first book sculpture and was amazed at viewers’ reactions to seeing old books used as a painting surface. “Everyone who saw the book sculpture wanted to touch it,” says Stilkey. “There was something magical about what it was on, almost more so than the painting. At such a large scale it is even more visually intense, and it smells like an old bookstore!”
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Mike Stilkey was born in Los Angeles, California in 1975 and received an Associate Degree from Santa Monica City College in 1997. Stilkey’s work has appeared in numerous group shows in Los Angeles, including BLK/MRKT Gallery, Curio 69 Gallery, Artpiece Gallery, and Gallery 1988. His work has been commissioned by the L.A. Alternative Press and has been featured in Exit Strategy Magazine as well as the catalogsBLK/MRKT ONE and Paper Pushers. In 2005 Stilkey publishedOne Hundred Portraits, an artist book.
Interview with Meghan Hendley,
KUHF 88.7 FM
Photos by Nash Baker © nashbaker.com