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The animals populating the canvases and panels in Gabriel Madan’s exhibition Dogs Who Are Poets and Movie Stars create a sense of nostalgia that collapses in on itself. In his paintings, characters seemingly culled from obscure children’s books are generations and worlds removed from the TV beasts and domestic pets they share pictorial space with, creating disparate tableaus with (at times) violent and ominous overtones. Even the most joyous palettes are accompanied by curious underlying tension, the childhood imagery contaminated and tinged with an adult perspective, like kindergarten hallway murals inspected under blacklight. The impulse to turn animals into allegory is imprinted early, and Madan’s anthropomorphized creatures seem to partake in the communion of some unconscious via the mindhaze of childhood nostalgia as they haplessly carry about their business, divorced from their original context. Facing these animals in such high, potent doses in Madan’s paintings—the disparate characters mingling with one other—is like wandering into an abandoned house, stumbling upon an overstuffed toy box, and imagining someone else’s childhood.
The works in the exhibition range in scale from letter-sized to several square feet, and most house manically arranged figures that feel vaguely familiar, though clear recognition is fleeting, if not absent. A bunny standing upright could have illustrated any number of fables or nursery rhymes. A mercurial frog mid-leap could be from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, a Little Golden Books illustration, or some unearthed, sixth-grade Valentine’s Day card. The alchemy of bringing so many creatures together in the same space—the largest work, Rilke’s Fifth Elegy (all works 2021), contains more than 30 (and far more if you count the dozens of glass ladybugs adhered to the canvas)—results in unexpected moments of tenderness, brutality, and anxiety. Stylistic collisions are often rendered in restless brushwork, glitter, and fluorescent goop.
In Love Always Wakes the Dragon, a parasitized snail with swollen, glowing antennae presides over a dramatic scene: a camel slain by an arrow is prone beneath a Tiffany lamp and attended to by a reptilian puppet head, all under the watch of the Sauron-esque eye of a chameleon. On Ghosts and the Overplus, reads like a portrait of a cockatoo with an obsessive disorder that has caused it to pluck off its feathers, only its impossibly huge head untouched by its compulsion. In the otherwise nauseously citrus green Rilke’s Fifth Elegy, black and white butterflies dance amongst a collaged assortment of leering owls and birds. A frog soliloquizes beneath a rat perched on a polka-dotted amanita. A dog looks on, with a striped article of clothing hung from its maw; the green tint of the painting makes the stripes appear black like antiquated prison attire, but the ruffles at the end suggest a clown’s collar.
Such a relentless and voracious accumulation of animal representation raises the question of what this common practice of anthropomorphizing animals tells us about ourselves. Children’s fantasy, wherein man-eating predators are recast as moral guides, is a pretty twisted place to begin with, a space to feel out the nascent existential dread of adulthood. In pulling all of this fabulistic matter together, Madan lays bare the strangeness of humanizing animals as a way to make sense of the abstract, resulting in an almost ghoulish, incomprehensible soup. The characters here are more tools than toys, granting access to an alternate reality in which such figures exist apart from us while sharing our most human attributes. Disoriented by their plurality and fleeting familiarity, we mingle amongst them, larping as the ghosts of children we never were.
Gabriel Madan: Dogs Who Are Poets and Movie Stars runs from October 16–December 3, 2021 at Gattopardo (2626 N. Figueroa St., Unit C, Los Angeles, CA 90065).