Make It New, Make It Strange

IMG_0490There’s a pack of wild dogs lurking in the Corvallis Arts Center. At first glance, Greta Ashworth’s canines don’t appear to be made of papier-mâché. They look more like muscle and bone, wearing expressions of both amusement and scorn. Are they going to snarl, or will they laugh? It’s hard to tell. The viewer shares this conflicted response; these sculptures provoke a kind of macabre curiosity. You want to get closer, but is that really a wise idea?

This balance between fear and humor is what Ashworth is aiming for—in her own words, “Life isn’t all sweet and wonderful.” Her work isn’t docile. And when asked about her influences, she cites animation like that of Tim Burton, the illuminated interiors of 15th century Flemish painters, and her own pets.

There’s an appealing tension in Ashworth’s art. She’d always considered herself a painter, but dissatisfied with the painting instruction she received in college (she attended Eastern Oregon University, not far from where she grew up), she turned to sculpture. Now she finds it natural to work in 3-D; it’s “familiar and comfortable.”

The transition from painting to sculpture was, according to Ashworth, accidental. While hanging a selection of her pieces in the restaurant del Alma on 1st Street, her husband suggested adding some sculpture to accompany her paintings. Ashworth admits she hesitated at first, but finally she gave in—a choice we can all be grateful for.

The sculptures at the Corvallis Arts Center are constructed through a layering of different materials. Once a steel armature is bent and welded into its desired shape, Ashworth covers it with a coat of various household materials: packing material and toilet paper rolls, for example, and on top of that, cloth and tissue paper. Finally, the creature is coated with matte media and painted. The resulting piece is surprisingly light—Ashworth demonstrates this by lifting a cute but almost deranged-looking pug with one hand. From this point on, the main challenge is getting the animals to stand on all four legs.

In contrast to the careful construction of Ashworth’s animals, there’s a confrontational aspect to her work. The dogs, Ashworth reveals, are a response to her issues with the breeding practices of the American Kennel Club (AKC) and its unintended, but widespread, consequences. In fact, Ashworth has recently adopted a Carolina dog (also known as an American dingo) puppy. Carolina dogs aren’t AKC certified; they’re a primitive breed, which makes them a suitable complement to Ashworth’s interest in naïve folk art.

Ashworth draws inspiration from her own life—her pets frequently appear in her paintings—but her work doesn’t feel mundane or overly familiar. The marriage of the uncanny and the cozy is what sets her work apart from other art depicting scenes of domesticity. It’s uncomfortable, yet playful.

Look out for Greta Ashworth in a Footwise show this winter. The exhibition will be Christmas-themed, but don’t expect your typical mistletoe and popcorn garlands; where’s the fun in that?  Her current exhibit at the Corvallis Arts Center ends Sunday, July 26.

By Kerry Hill