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Oh Give me a Home: Recent Work by Kia Neill

Text by Cindy Moore

A herd of buffalo swarms down the wall, frozen in mid-descent. More infestation than stampede, they invade the gallery space, en masse. Undeniably humorous yet simultaneously tragic, these diminutive beasts are driven by an onslaught of questions. Why are they here? Do they follow like lemmings off the ledge, endangering them-selves in the haste? Or have they assembled in protest, reclaiming these walls as long-lost prairies, invading our space as we once invaded theirs?

Kia Neill’s recent sculpture does not offer easy answers. Herding together collective ironies, she explores the inexorable bond between domesticity and control with playful wit and a caustic eye. In a number of pieces, she uses bison as visual metaphor. Their story, a complex history of abuse, neglect and protection, is underlined with a collective need to control.

From a treasured natural resource to a pestilence standing in the way of progress, the American Bison has witnessed many shifts in public standing. Once so great in number they were thought to be in inexhaustible supply, the government paid bounties for their disposal. Although at one time they were hunted to the point of endangerment, the bison are now guarded and maintained by that same government. The irony of their predicament is succinctly illustrated in Kia Neill’s Buffalo Squirt Gun. Here, a child’s harmless squirt gun impales the miniature bison, playfully binding him to the device of his own gruesome destruction - a fitting portrait of cruelty borne of innocence.

In Buffalo Geyser, the once majestic beast is harnessed with the trappings of make-shift technology. Leashed to the wall with an extension cord, the creature patiently stands by as the replicated geyser strapped to his back periodically goes off. This miniature Old Faithful, regulated by household timers, attracts its own tourists much like its famous counterpart at Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the governmentally protected areas where the beasts still roam, but the geysers and the buffalo share more than this geographical bond. Through the course of human intervention, they have both been relegated to the realm of the predictable. As tourists, we gather and watch in regulated intervals as water erupts from the earth. We take pictures as majestic creatures saunter behind placards displaying their names. In this interaction with the natural world, have we have domesticated the wonder out of nature? Neill tempers the seriousness of this inquiry with her distinct brand of humor.

In Betty Crocker, Neill shifts her focus to a different brand of domesticity, where gendered, familial ties bind cruelty and love. For this piece, the artist has set up an enticing display of extremely unpalatable food. Using the conventions of traditional cookbook photography, Neill draws on the namesake of this piece as accomplice to her complex deception. At first glance the delectable spread promises opulent indulgence, but upon inspection of the accompanying diagram this homemaker’s dream becomes a nightmare. The once promising fruit shake is revealed as moldy maraschino cherries in curdled milk, and the rest of the meal follows suit. As the role of nourishment is supplanted with something far more sinister, the motivations behind the spread are called to question. More disturbing than the revolting food, is the care with which it was created. The oddly comic result plays with personal notions of consumption, comfort and control.

We are introduced to a personification of this conflict in Mommy Dearest. Leering through a sugary frame is the title character, busily piping in the trappings of her imprisonment. The too-sweet smile borders on menacing, and the decorative flourishes hint at a maniacal drive. This piece not only questions assumptions of gendered character and role, it brings up another, more Freudian, conflict; how we reconcile the differences between love and cruelty and protection and control.

Reclaiming individual experience in an overly domesticated world is no simple (nor necessarily attainable) task. In Kia Neill’s recent work, we are not given any remedies to the predicament — just a temporary reprieve. As the buffalo cascade down the wall, there is a moment when disbelief is suspended. During that brief interlude, the undeniable humor of the struggle is clearly revealed, and we can look on in regained wonder.

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