Artist explores duality between ‘Tyger’ and ‘Lamb’
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 00:04
Tigers and lambs — one symbolizes predatory power, the other benign innocence.
A series of acrylic paintings on display in the Marshall Student Center’s Centre Gallery magnifies the polarity between these symbolic animals by using them to depict role reversals in gender, sexuality and morality.
The title of the exhibit, “Tyger! Tyger! Little Lamb,” brings to mind nursery rhymes or picture books. The images created by Briana Phelps, a first year MFA student studying studio art, even poses that illustrative style. But the subject matters portrayed are far from childish.
The first painting on the left wall of the exhibit depicts the artist vomiting orange paint with black stripes onto several ivory lambs. Phelps said that instead of choosing to be “spray painting the tiger stripes onto the lambs,” she used vomiting to serve a symbolic purpose.
“My idea with this was that it was inside of me and I had to get it out,” she said. “It’s coming out of me, instead of this external product that I’m spraying on.”
On the same wall hangs a small painting of two lambs donning tiger hides over their wool and chain leashes around their necks. Phelps said the chains further the theme of role reversal because lambs are typically obedient followers.
Another portrays a panoramic scene of the artist hunting a tiger with bow and arrow alongside a lamb wearing tiger skin. Phelps said the inspiration for the piece, “You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide,” was derived from the book “The Bedside Book of Beasts” that tells real accounts from hunters.
“One that was really interesting to me was this guy who had killed, like, 402 tigers,” she said. “At one point he was in the woods, and he realized he was being stalked. And he describes in detail this feeling of finally having that role switched. It was so dark that he couldn’t see where the tiger was, but he knew the tiger knew exactly where he was, and he could sense it and feel it.”
Phelps said she was inspired to use these animals as symbols when she reread two poems, “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” by William Blake.
She said she would never harm an animal and that they only serve symbolic purposes in her work, adding that they help her explore the blurring definitions of what each species represents in humans. In “I’ll Try You on for Size,” the artist sits on the ground wearing tiger skin after casting off the lambskin worn in other works.
While some works such as this one had more obvious symbolic meaning, others were not so easily understood. Sarah Bolick, a freshman majoring in accounting, and Jennifer Miller, a freshman majoring in health sciences, stopped to discuss “Drinking Magic Potion.” The piece focuses on yellow excrement leaking from a backward-facing tiger with the artist, wearing a sheep mask, bent down to drink it.
“I don’t understand that one,” Miller said. “I think it’s interesting, I just really don’t get it.”
Phelps said the inspiration for “Drinking Magic Potion” and “Tokens to Cast Spells With,” which depicts the artist feasting on slaughtered tigers, stems from existing cultural beliefs of ingesting the tiger to inherit its power.
“The tiger, for me, is this symbol of power, and the tiger is often related to masculinity as well,” she said. “They poach tigers in Asia to grind up their bones as a form of Viagra.”
Bolick said she related to the symbolism of the lambs.
“More times than not, I feel like the sheep because I’m not very masculine,” she said.
Conversely, Alec Kugler, a junior majoring in anthropology, said he likes to think he has aspects of both, but in the end related more to the tiger.
“I like the little characters,” he said. “Reminds me of picture books, except some of those are really sexualized. It’s interesting.”
Phelps said she could never see herself making children’s books, but is interested in the crossover between children’s book styles with adult subject matter, such as the humorous pseudo-children’s book “Go the F--- to Sleep.”
“Tyger! Tyger! Little Lamb” runs through May 4 in the Centre Gallery.