For about 10 years, Colette Hosmer has been making art using organic materials including snakeskins, animal skeletons, and dried fish. Sometimes she incorporates startlingly realistic casts of whole fish, fowl, and other creatures. Hosmer doesn’t kill animals to harvest materials; they’re dead when she gets them. Yet her work has little if anything to do with death, and everything to do with life.
Over the course of the past decade, Hosmer has articulated animal skeletons as bipeds and hung them as marionettes; cast her own feet in dried minnows; covered a life-cast of her adult daughter’s hips and legs with the skins of boa constrictors; and created several installations of hundreds of thousands of dried minnows masquerading as water, pooling in bathtubs, toilets and sinks, pouring from pipes and splashing into rippling puddles. By turning minnows into water, making animals walk upright, Hosmer is not dabbling in illusionism. Instead, she is challenging our notions of separateness and superiority to other animals asking us to examine the very essence of life.
Table of Contents represents a new turn in Hosmer’s dance with life. Recently, she began exploring the idea of creating still lifes with organic materials, and found herself inventing tableaux featuring both the skeletons that have become a hallmark of her art and castings of whole animals. Her materials have evolved, one could say, from fossils to flesh; her concept, from the nature of life to its sustenance: food.
On the eve of the 21st century, nowhere is man’s separateness from Nature more evident than in his relationship to food, particularly in the industrialized world. With the exception of those who hunt, fish, or farm, people of today experience food completely removed from its source. Chicken comes in neat pimply pink pieces wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray. Baby carrots might as well be birthed by vine as grown underground, to the extent that they are recognizable as roots.
In this new work, Hosmer presents us with a map of the food chain, in which humanity is but a single link, and poses very concrete proofs. Where does duck a l’orange begin, but with a waterfowl, a bird with webbed feet and a bill? She notes in Still Life with Duck. The minnow mincemeat of Still Life with Deep-dish Pie may seem repugnant, but such fish are food to many people throughout the world – and to other fish, as Still Life with Hanging Red Fish and Still Life with Sheep’s Head Fish illustrate.
Yet Hosmer never abandons aesthetics. Her sculptural still lifes include all the elements of a 17th-century Dutch painting: the plain wooden table, the plain cloth across it, the whole and opened fruit, a bottle of wine. The assemblages fairly vibrate with the dynamic tension between the abstract forms – the curve of the duck’s neck just inches from the steel trapezoid of a cleaver, the paper-thin tail of the red fish hanging above the bowl into which its scales are dripping. The textural juxtapositions – the minnows acting as “scales” of the red fish, or being beaten as “batter” with a wooden spoon – remind us that this is a parody, albeit a reverential one.
In Still Life with Hog’s Head Hosmer speaks even more. The shelves of an antique Mexican aguadero, or water chest, tell the story of a kitchen where food is still prepared from scratch, a kitchen we enter just before someone is about to begin cooking. Here are the eggs just gathered; brown sugar and dried chile pods sit waiting of a saucer; three whole fish wrapped in corn husks are ready for the fire. On the bottom shelf sits a pan holding a hog’s head, its eyes open. This is a personal note from Hosmer’s childhood, when her mother made “head cheese” – a jellied lunch meat made with parts of the head (and sometimes feet) of a hog. The hog’s head reminds us point-blank that the meat we eat comes from living, breathing, seeing beings.
Hosmer further probes this idea in her still-life “place settings.” A whole turtle lies in the bowl of turtle soup; just the skeletons of two fish remain where a meal has been finished; an entire lobster rests on a bed of mussels. Each is a silent testimonial to the multiple meanings of food to our loves.
Hosmer’s talent lies in the scope of the emotional responses her work evokes, sometimes simultaneously, in the viewer: Awe, discomfort, laughter, revulsion, fascination, guilt, serenity, thoughtfulness. In this work we can see the whole cycle of life, from flesh to fossil and back again, and come to recognize more surely our own place in it.
Hollis Walker - Santa Fe, New Mexico