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In Lui Shtini’s show Thaw, fleshy, animalistic figures are painted on manufactured, hard aluminum. The paintings allude to the curiosities found in the Wunderkammers of early modern Europe: skeletal remains of extinct creatures reassembled for analysis and surrounded by metal. Depictions of human teeth and limbs appear through the roughs of fur and carcass—the creatures are both detached objects of contemplation and composed of human anatomy. This combination makes Shtini’s paintings feel simultaneously far away and immediate: their indexical quality recalls natural history museums, yet their subtle human references remind us that we are subject to the same conditions of decomposition as the specimens entombed in institutional displays.
Shtini further articulates a taxonomic approach to his subject matter through the painting’s titles; five of the six take the scientific name of an endangered or extinct animal. For instance, Mammut Americanum (all works 2021) is the scientific name for the American mastodon, a large, semiaquatic mammal that had tusks similar to those of the wooly mammoth. Here, the animal for which the work is named is depicted as an abstract, bulbous form that crowds the bulk of the canvas. Shtini paints the mastodon resting on tongue-like, flesh-colored foreground with thick swaths of white to constitute its fur. These patches of fur are buttressed by pools of blood-red, as if the animal’s skin has been peeled back to reveal the sinewy material underneath. In this way, the creature becomes the subject of human observation, much like the cadavers in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). The animal does not appear as something that should be protected or whose habitat should be preserved. Its value, dead or alive, is reduced to the usefulness it can provide to human industry.
Despite the fact Shirini alludes to the animal as an object of scholarship, he paints the mastodon without its defining characteristic: its tusks. In their place are a series of dimensional, textured white chunks planted atop a long pink rectangle—the forms resemble plaque-riddled dentures. By inserting an element of human biology into the work, Shtini ensures that the creature cannot be othered or seen as intrinsically different from us. Both the animal and the dentures symbolize the same reality: decay. Taxonomies, recreations, and artifacts are what we are left with after an animal becomes extinct, just as dentures replace teeth damaged and rotted over time.
Human body parts are entangled with organic material elsewhere in Thaw. Coelodonta takes its name from an extinct genus of rhinoceros. The painting captures the animal’s silhouette, constructed through knotted lines that twist in and out of one another to illustrate its sloping back and characteristic horn. Like the mastodon’s tusk, however, the rhinoceros’ hooves are supplanted by what appear to be human feet. The jutting, interconnected branches and red and black clusters of spheres resemble microscopic imagery in petri dishes—and, given our current reality, immediately evoke the ubiquitous representations of the coronavirus found alongside news reports and headlines covering the pandemic. Again, Shtini employs a contemporary symbol of human demise to draw a parallel between the mass extinction of prehistoric animals and the fragility of our own species.
Not only does the artist consider humanity’s role in the degradation of our surrounding environment, but his paintings articulate the reality of mutually assured destruction. As detached as nature can feel from modern society, as impossible a phenomenon as mass extinction may seem for our species, human indifference and inaction will inevitably lead to such a reality. While paintings won’t save us from climate apocalypse, artists are in a unique position to plant their viewer firmly within the scope of our changing ecology. Shtini accomplishes this by creating visions of a post-human society—littered with the remnants of plant and animal extinction and the dregs of industrialization—to make both the past and the future seem alarmingly close.
Lui Shtini: Thaw runs from February 12–April 16, 2022 at Harkawik (1819 3rd Ave., Los Angeles, CA).