The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Sep 03, 2012

Aaron Dysart's bitingly clever display of natural enhancements opens in "That's Better" at CVA

Posted by sschouweiler

Aaron Dysart's work plays on the tension between human-made and "natural," reflecting the uneasy interplay between the built and wild spheres. Like his voyage on the U.S.S. Soap Boat down the Mississippi to "clean up the river" a few months ago, Dysart’s work is instantly recognizable for its tongue-in-cheek trickiness and incongruities: he has put casters on branches and doorknobs on boulders, and fit denuded trees with newly fabricated, wood-glue limbs. For the night-long Northern Spark festival this June, Dysart “threw a party” for a grand maple situated on the grounds of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; he festooned the old, 60-foot tree with mirrored disco balls and lights – the resulting display was dazzling and surprisingly contemplative.

Aaron Dysart, "Antler Augmentation." Photo courtesy of College of Visual Arts

And now, channeling Jonathan Swift, the artist just opened “That’s Better,” the new “Portals on Western” storefront-window exhibit at the College of Visual Arts gallery. These new works offer “solutions to life’s problems for various species. …to help better the appearance of the animal or save them precious time in this hectic world.”

His pitch: “Too long have humans selfishly reaped the life-changing results” promised by products aimed at convenience, ease and self-improvement. But no more: with these enhancements, he proposes to put “the human back into the ecosystem…No longer will modern scientific advances be limited to easing the existence of just humans, because all animals are worth it.”

A stand-out among these “solutions” is “Antler Augmentation” – fabricated extensions to boost the insecure buck’s rack (“deer can finally have the self-confidence they deserve”). Also notable are the his-and-hers briefs for tree crotches. And in the window around the corner from the underwear-clad limbs, a stuffed rabbit models a sassy, bright pink cosmetically-enhanced foot – a little bling for bunnies unsatisfied with garden-variety luck, I suppose. On the other side of the building is a sharply designed display of pre-fab dam materials, for beavers who’d like to whittle down the labor of building a nice house, so they can “finally have time to sit down with their families.”

Installation view of "Lucky," by Aaron Dysart. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

The fit of work to exhibition space – a series of small portholes and a few large storefront window displays – is a bit awkward, and a couple of the smaller windows don't have much to offer. It's a small quibble, though. Frankly, it's tricky to find pieces that show particularly well in this idiosyncratic space. I'd be interested to see how these pieces work as a more fully-fleshed out series, with more traditional gallery installation. Shown in this context, the series feels modest, like a trial balloon for something more substantial – but it's memorable all the same.

Dysart’s pieces are both well-crafted and witty. The sculptural series spoofs both 21st-century vanities and ecological ignorance; and, at first blush, these pieces are also just plain fun, even silly. The visual jokes are so appealing, in fact, that it’s easy to miss the vein of grave seriousness here.

Dysart's satirical riffs on flora and fauna-improvement products underscore the perversity and real danger inherent in casually anthropocentric, utilitarian understandings of the natural world. That is, when we look at nature, we don’t see ecosystems of which we’re a part, we see “natural resources.” The prevailing lexicon presumes dominion, therefore the vocabulary with which we frame ecological concerns is comprised in terms of human appetite and profit, improvement and artifice. We're shoehorning nature's expanses and variety into the relatively paltry grammar of strictly-human concerns – and that's the fundamental absurdity on which Dysart's joke in "That's Better" rests.

The deftly executed, subtle black humor in Dysart’s “modest proposal” is awfully clever – but the sting of the troubling realization at the show's core? That’s no laughing matter.

Installation view of "Crotches (Female)," by Aaron Dysart. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

“That’s Better” by Aaron Dysart will be on view through December 28, 2012 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – in the storefront window displays of the College of Visual Arts gallery at 173 Western Ave., St. Paul. For more information, visit

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