By NOAH BECKER, June 2022
NOAH BECKER: What does making art that has animal imagery mean to you? Is there activism attached to this, or are you just drawn to animals as a subject?
KRISTINA LIBBY: Oh, it’s definitely activism-oriented, and I find it fun. There is a fair amount of research around how anthropomorphism actually helps with both animal conservation and climate activism or at least climate connectivism.
By creating a line of animal characters and sharing how these animals go on journeys to say, or search for a new home, because their home has been destroyed, helps us engage in a climate conversation in a way that is relatable and also builds empathy. But, it also helps raise questions ourselves about what we might have to go through when our homes become flooded, in dangerous fire zones, or we otherwise have to seek out a new place to live. But, you can do it in a way that is entertaining and encourages people to contribute to the world. And, there is research that shares how effective that can be versus the apocalyptic stories we often share.
BECKER: And the Chunkos?
The Chunkos are always struggling between being their big awesome selves and being appropriate or fitting into what society wants them to be. Yet, these animals literally make whole worlds and ecosystems just by being themselves.
The Chunkos have this underlying theme to LIVE BIG and be a full expression of themselves. That to me is also very activism-oriented but more to our larger social fabric. Two years ago, I made floral hearts to help bring awareness to our COVID losses and that work was pivotal to introducing COVID legislation. NOW, even a year before that, I wouldn’t have entertained my creative impulses to do something and yet, when I finally gave myself permission to be create and also be all the other parts of myself, I was able to create change. I think so many of us think we should just be one thing but then we are not being a full version of ourselves - and that is a disappointment to the world. Our full selves are what we need to change the world right now - more artists, more writers, more dreamers, and a lot more people doing the unique things they love, to create a world that is prepared and able to confront our shifting futures.
BECKER: In the piece titled "Grimo", we see a Rhino painted with an abstract color theme on its body. This is interesting to me and also very dramatic. Is there meaning behind it? It could just be an aesthetic investigation on your part with color, but I can't decide which?
LIBBY: There is meaning. :) The colors are intended to represent their inner desires and the way in which those desires are a wash of colors blending together and fighting to be free. I think so many of us have these bright vivid personalities but we trap them to adhere to a more muted version of ourselves. This is what is happening with both Grimo, and Ellie and all the characters. The color tension is about our tension between the masks we have to wear (the blank white heads), and the constraints we put on ourselves (the geometric lines), when really we all buzz with a vibrant energy.
BECKER: Your sculpture "Ellie" shows an elephant with a pattern painted on its hide. These get really whimsical for me and I usually don't like whimsy in art. Somehow you've made these iconic enough to not rely on whimsy alone. Do you think about this kind of thing when planning a sculpture?
LIBBY: Yes, I do. And, I am a bit your opposite in that I do really like whimsy. Part of the inspiration behind this project was research I did into animal art and architecture in New York City. I was amused by the work of Henry Stern–the two-time former parks Commissioner– who mandated that every children’s playground built or updated during his tenure have an animal in it. He also created an organization in the 1990s known as the 7As and this organization would host scavenger hunts around the city trying to find an A-Z of animals hidden in plain sight. And, recently, when the Parks Department tried to decommission some of these pieces, citizens fought to keep them hard enough that the City created a space for those decommissioned animals in the Bronx. To me that’s sort of insane, but also this wonderful part of the city and a core part of its culture and character. New York can be a whimsical place.
I wanted to play into that sense of fun and connection we can feel with animal sculptures and I wanted to imagine them traveling around New York, exploring new things and eventually, going to other cities. I wanted them to have personalities and a whole world and I realized that to do that, they can’t just be talking bears or dancing elephants. I wanted them to be whimsical but bold. That’s why I created the specific graphic painting application because I felt it contrasted with the sort of overt femininity often connected with whimsy – and I gave them full character personas, so that they were not simply cute and twee. I want them to represent a dynamic spectrum of human experience.
When I see a piece like "Mabel" it reminds me of the show I saw of Jeff Koons at Gagosian in New York. Koons had a spot for real flowers in the sculpture. You have that kind of interaction with this piece, you have real flowers. Or maybe they are artificial? What's the story behind "Mabel"?
They are real flowers, and that specific piece is intended to be quasi-functional in nature. A vase can be fitted into the sculpture itself to change the flowers with the seasons. This Mabel maquette was created to test the concept of using these characters for more functional pieces. I like the idea that a sculpture can be co-creative and evolve overtime by what you add to it. Mabel can be adorned with spring, summer, winter and fall flowers, as fits with whatever home she finds herself in. To me, the idea of a collaborative creation process that evolves with a new owner is at the core of the Chunkos universe.
If someone makes floral art, because of Mabel then she’s already encouraging them to Live Big, and think more creatively, which is a core aspect of her personality. Mabel is a creative character—introverted but colorful— so it is true to the concept and the character that she’d like wild flowers and that her desire to be adorned with those colors encourages someone to play with and arrange flowers.
Koons certainly is an icon of this work. BUT, I have been working with flowers for decades. I worked at a flower shop during my masters degree and have been a casual florist doing weddings and birthdays and such for fun, since then. My last major public art project was also floral based. To me incorporating natural elements into sculptural elements is a way to further connect and generate empathy for the characters. So I will continue to do this— during the exhibit on Friday, you’ll also see a large flower only rendering of Porthos— a near-sighted, very curious sea turtle.
Do you ever bring all the animals together into a large group? Or are they supposed to be shown separately? I noticed that Ellie and Grimo are placed in proximity to each other in one exhibition.
Yes, in Astor Place for In Plain Sight (June 10-12) there will be four characters closely together in their full or nearly full size. To me, they are a universe and so it makes sense that they would interact publicly, while still being true to their characters.
Ellie, a spotlight loving extrovert, is on full display and next to her is Herschel, a rebellious, always hungry Sea Lion. Grimo, the grumpy rhino, will be trying to get away from the whole thing and Porthos will be camped out in the North plaza investigating the trees. I want people to get to know the whole universe and think about what the characters could do, where they could go and find the characters that they, themselves most identify with… and why.
In addition to the more illustrative sculptures, I'm into the times that your work gets more abstract. "Bill Seagull" is an example of a more free-form construction with a partial landscape element or shelf-like object on the floor. Do you ever add more elements that suggest an environment or do you prefer to have the sculptures interact with the space?
Bill Seagull is a favorite piece. He is based after Bill Clinton, who I think looks like a seagull. Although I realize I’m in the minority! There are other maquettes that are more environmental in nature, but we won't be showing many of them in the upcoming exhibit. To me, I think I want to give you just enough that you can conjure up a story but not so much that I take you on the whole journey. There is a rule of advertising that I always find interesting which is that great ads give you 80% and ask you to work out the other 20%, I feel that public art should do that too. It should give you enough that you know what’s going on but ask you to fill in the rest.
You have an interesting color sense that kind of uses stark whites and intense abstract color. Where do you find inspiration with your colors?
I had a brain injury a few years ago. In 2019, I fell twenty feet onto my head while kitesurfing. When I began to recover, I felt very motivated to begin a painting practice. My brain sought out color—vivid colors— and a very soft application of mixing those colors together. For whatever reason, my unconscious mind finds those colors in that mix to be life affirming and positive and I have rolled with that. The lines help create a sense of order for me from within that chaos as well.
But, also, this specific application was created so that they could be painted in public by people of all ages and not become a total mess. This color style allows for creativity and participation but the lines ensure a cohesion at the end of the process.
I sense that you've studied Rodin? Maybe I'm wrong but could you tell us about your sculptural influences, either historical or recent?
I’ve visited the Rodin museum a few times and am of course taken by classical sculpture. But, the influences for this series really started for me with a chance encounter with a long dead goat, the surprise arrival of a baby elephant and desire to have a conversation with the public that could be ongoing. In that sense, I feel more inspired by world-builders like Walt Disney or Jim Henson than traditional sculptural influences. But, I also look at people like Koons or Kaz and think: I want to do that. I want to make large scale public pieces that are part of the public dialogue and can generate conversation… I just want my conversation to be more focused on how we can build a better and more inclusive world.
What's next for you?
I think I will be working on this universe for a while. I have already started plans to bring the public sculptures to more neighborhoods and am doing some materials work as well. I’d like to create Chunkos that are built for longer public exhibits and I am exploring how to create a similar geometric or aesthetic quality with metals. WM
Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube.
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