Where the Wild Things Are: Fractal Morphologies and the Unfettered Bestiaries of Shawn Mackniak

Shawn Mackniak, Inner Selves, 2000. Ceramics.

Shawn Mackniak

Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, November 2019

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth.”

 -- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are [1]

You can hear the gnashing of terrible teeth as you attend to the work of Shawn Mackniak, a Montreal Outsider. Yes, a full set of ambulatory incisors appears everywhere in his work. If you are asked: “Is it safe?” it is probably better not to demur and answer in the affirmative. The artist aka Christian Szell may have other things in mind for you. [2] Best not to take any chances with that dentillated extravaganza. Those teeth are very, very sharp! There are precipices here. Proceed with caution and you may just be lucky enough to escape the prospect of wholesale evisceration.

The Saskatchewan-born Mackniak lives and works in Montréal, where he spawns vibrant bestiaries in ceramics and on paper. His work is obsessive and profane and densely worked. Dark fairy tales for adults, his involute and often convoluted bestiaries are bursting at the proverbial seams with a glut of monstrous entities that seem intent on consuming human prey.

Shawn Mackniak, On Top Of It, 2010. Watercolour on paper (18'' x 28'').

As a ceramic artist of some distinction, he has created legions upon legions of monstrous figurines that crawl out of the depths to haunt the uneasy dreams of the living and the dead. In their feral multitudes, they know nothing of censure or stasis, and seem like the progeny of a dementia or a night spent imbibing mescal. They possess a loopy intensity. They have a surpassingly strange aura of the untaught like the sculptures of the California fantasist Clark Ashton Smith. Often presented in clusters, they read like obscene prostheses, gaping wounds, hybrid orifices. 

As a draughtsman of singular virtuosity, Mackniak gives feverish voice to a sort of innate hebephenia (a species of chronic schizophrenia involving disordered thought, inappropriate emotions, hallucinations, and bizarre behaviour) as disturbing as it enlivening. A compulsive painter, he births an unholy brood of slavering mouths. He has been called a masterful colourist, and the in-your-face chromatic intensity of his works on paper is virtually hallucinatory in effect.

This work in spirit notably hearkens back to Where the Wild Things Are, an award winning 1963 children's picture book by American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak that featured a host of grotesque and oddly endearing monsters. 

That spare story (only 338 words long) focuses on a child named Max who, after putting on a wolf costume, wreaks such mayhem in his house that he is sent to bed without dinner. His bedroom undergoes a strange metamorphosis into a jungle environment, and he sails to an island inhabited by a bevy of malicious beasts known as the "Wild Things." After effectively intimidating them, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things and participates in a rumpus with his new servants. 

Shawn Mackniak, Just Blending In, 2012. Watercolour on paper (18'' x 28'').

Well, Shawn Mackniak is also a king of the Wild Things and his work is an unapologetic and replete invocation of havoc and mayhem. Welcome to the table at a latter day Feast of Nebuchadnezzar. Here the hand of God that appeared at the Feast and authored the inscription on the wall prophesying the downfall of Belshazzar's reign is Mackniak’s own surrogate and his humungous feeding frenzy reads like a premonition of the apocalyptic decline of the West: here is the end of Trumpland.

The melting faces and repletely well-toothed, if not toothsome, apparitions in his work call to mind the presiding deity in The Thing, John Carpenter’s cult classic sci-fi film of 1982. That film, itself a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), tells the story of a group of American researchers at a base in Antarctica who encounter the eponymous "Thing," a horrific and parasitic extraterrestrial life form that is hacked out of an icy grave only to digest and then perfectly imitate other organisms. The malformed Quasimodo-like creature consumes the researchers one by one. At one point, as an attempt is made to defibrillate an infected member of the crew, his chest opens into a hideous toothed mouth that bites off the arms of the doctor, killing him. Where The Thing meets Where the Wild Things Are marks a phantasmatic intersection that defines the monstrosities that Mackniak gleefully depicts. 

His imagery is fluid and his morphologies are complexly and inordinately fractal in mien. The paintings are akin to sardine cans packed tight with carnivorous entities, the well-toothed gullets of which are depicted in proximity with a very human dinner. There is little white space left after these monsters settle in. They rule the roost or say rather that their teeth do.

The sheer multiplicity of monstrous integers here has a decidedly fractal slant. Consider Jean Dubuffet’s Paris Circus works (circa 1948 and later) with their endless iterations of human figures in dense clusters that cloak and congest the entire field. Now substitute those figures for the gaping maws of Mackniak’s monstrous regiments. They marry well, but not in Heaven.

The unfurling of his fields has a certain mathematical beauty that remind us of Mandelbrot sets of complex numbers that effloresce somewhere on the nightside of our existence. Iterations of the dentillation run through this artist’s work like a threnody of fractal geometry. Clouds, mountains, coastlines, are all natural fractals. They are all complicated and irregular in mien. Think now of teeth. The normal adult mouth has some 32 teeth. The inhuman teeth depicted here seem to self-duplicate with harrowing regularity. They organically grow in their full array across the ground like indigenous cyphers of menace. 

Mandelbrot famously wrote: "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line." Similarly, the teeth here are not tidy squares, they are unhinged integers of the explosively fractal. They are geometrical objects that are self-similar but entirely distinctive. In Mackniak’s work in ceramics and on paper, every set of teeth has its own predecessor and successor in a structure that, so that it resembles a dentil (from Lat. dens, a tooth), a small block used as a repeating ornament in the bedmould of a cornice. The chaos and irregularity of the world – what Mandelbrot referred to as "roughness" - is celebrated in Mackniak’s work. 

Images of the Mandelbrot set exhibit an elaborate and infinitely complicated boundary that reveals progressively ever-finer recursive detail at increasing magnifications. This is also true of Mackniak’s works on paper. The "style" of the repeating dentils/dentillation depends on the region of the set that comes under our purview. The set's boundary – the physical edges of the paper, also incorporates smaller versions of the main shape, so the fractal property of self-similarity applies to the entire set, and not just to its parts.

Mackniak, who was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, acknowledges the seminal influences of the ceramicists Vic Cicansky and Joe Fafard. But his artwork has little in common with the academy that he felt stultifying from the first. He subsequently travelled throughout Japan, Thailand, Mexico and Europe where he was drawn to depictions of mythological creatures such as dragons, gargoyles and other feral creatures that would inspire him.

He gives himself free reign to imagine an endless array of self-replicating, spontaneously gestated monstrous shapes. Beyond the fractal, there is something akin to automatic writing here, in the fluidity and apparitional hegemony of the forms. The artist himself acknowledges that the works -- whether in drawing, painting or sculpture -- emerged from reams of scribbling and a playful and spontaneous approach to the medium. In other words, the images come in from outside and establish the artist as a confrere of art brut.

His implacable creatures with their intense expressions and dynamic body postures seem to flock in from all sides, omnivorous and unrelenting. Mackniak says of his bestiaries: 

“These creatures…are at the same time friendly, dangerous ready to burst, yell forth from the imagination into our reality as a friend or foe.  This intensity of emotion and uncertainty of exact character is an aspect I am exploring through my clay creations and paintings. I let these creations emerge from the unconscious without censorship or conscious manipulation. These creatures will retain their mystery through their defiance of logical explanation and variance of definite and abstracted form accentuated through coloured stains and distorted features. I will maintain this obsession by producing thousands of these creatures, as I will never exhaust or finish exploring all the infinite ever-expanding mythological combinations.”

In the ceramics, Mackniak gives full flight to a nightmarish cornucopia of hungry mouths. These are often presented in groups and they only gain further expressive power by being so grouped. They are on the prowl in packs. Theirs is a hunger that is never satisfied, but only magnified across the surface of the paper or clay, and it seems almost primeval. The mouths are like Pac-Man cells or viral algorithms that divide and multiply by will.

If Mackniak has a fellow traveller in contemporary art, it is surely Jon Pylypchuk. Ten years ago, I wrote in Frieze: “In a universe undreamt of by both the Muppets and Mister Rogers, the exhibition took a walk on the wild side of creative whimsy, driving a stake through sense and sensibility with the antics of the artist’s unruly anthropomorphs.” [3]

Shawn Mackniak, Mesmerized, 2010. Watercolour on paper (18'' x 24'').

Those remarks seem pertinent where Mackniak’s work is concerned, for his is also an upscale DIY sinkhole of the psyche, a hellhole like no other. The luminous bestiary that populated The War (2009), in which a legion of cloacal faces of necromantic gods induce palpable shudders, as though they were emissaries from some exotic locale south of Tijuana. The eldritch abomination Pylypchuk calls Fire Crater face and the equally magisterial Fire Teeth (both 2010), mounted on the wall in such a way as to suggest a demented Nkisi Nkonde monkey crouched to spring down on the viewer, brought on a rare frisson and remind us powerfully of Mackniak’s feverish inventions in works like the open maw in the work on paper.

The whimsy and hands-on aesthetic in Mackniak’s works, and a certain naïve element in the rendering, finds a humorous touchstone and resonance in the awkward yet brutal phantasms of Pylypchuk. Like Pylypchuk’s sculptured bird entities, Mackniak’s ceramic heads speak of a very personal and hugely exotic ethics of making.

Mackniak, like Pylypchuk, has conjured a fully adult dose of squalor and a certain underlying menace from anthropomorphized monsters and maws that speak potently of estrangement, menace and excessive consumption, even as they become tacit surrogates for our own sorry, shattered selves. Caught between bracing steel-trap orders of pathos and bathos alike, they evoke an unforgiving cosmos fraught with feral creatures that have a very healthy appetite for human flesh. WM 


1. Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

2. Christian Szell aka Der Weisse Engel (German for The White Angel) after his thick mane of white hair (later shaven), is a character in Marathon Man, a wanted war criminal, the1976 American suspense-thriller film directed by John Schlesinger. It was adapted by William Goldman from his 1974 novel of the same name and stars Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane and Marthe Keller. In the film, the Nazi perp Szell (brilliantly acted by Olivier) tortures the protagonist with a repertoire of drills, picks and pliars in a dentist-from-Hell mode.

3. James D. Campbell, “John Pylypchuk” in Frieze, Issue 137, March, 2011.


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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