Erika Wanenmacher’s Spiritual Creations Successfully Walk a Fine Line Between Genius and Madness

By: Hollis Walker
Journal North
November 2007

In many mainstream religions and pagan spiritual practices (such as those commonly referred to as witchcraft, magic and voodoo), an effigy or other visual representation is created of the person or object that is the subject of a prayer, incantation or spell. Sometimes an object belonging to a person, or an actual body part (such as hair, bone or teeth), is incorporated into these visual representations as a means of increasing their power. Whether used in praise and supplication or for harm or revenge, these objects are believed by those who use them to be more than symbolic; they actually take on the attributes of those whom they represent. Reliquaries, ex-votos, fetishes and, of course, voodoo “dolls” are all the result of human desire to make spiritual power tangible, to ritualize beliefs and to demonstrate fealty to a set of ideas. And, of course, with time many of these objects come to be revered, by later owners, as art objects as well as religious artifacts.
Erika Wanenmacher’s current exhibition at Linda Durham Contemporary Art borrows from these spiritual traditions, and only partly with tongue in cheek. Wanenmacher, who calls herself a “culture witch,” has created a series of wall-hung masks and sculptures made from benign and nostalgic media in the form of stealth bombers. A secondary theme of this fetishism is the Native American character of Coyote, the trickster and master of disguise known for his clever thefts.
“Stealth Mask to Steal Back Childhood” is fabricated of vintage tin TV trays with colorful childhood imagery including Troll dolls. Likewise, “Stealth Mask to Steal Back Holidays for the Pagans” is made of tin from holiday popcorn and cookie tins, featuring Halloween pumpkins, Easter bunnies and Santa with his reindeer. For “Stealth Mask to Steel ‘Wood’ Back to the Forests” Wanenmacher recycled a tin box in a faux wood pattern. Each of the riveted “bombers” includes cutout eyes, making them at least nominally masks.
Wanenmacher appropriated a hand-tatted tablecloth to create “Grandmother’s Stealth Mask to Steal Away War,” with ties that end in missile-shaped forms. Placing the mask into a box of security glass (the kind with steel webbing inside) and padlocking it, Wanenmacher seems to be satirizing the “security” promises of war machines by juxtaposing the Stealth form with the real security many people associate with “Grandmother,” represented here by her painstaking handiwork. The message is made more powerful if one also connects it to the wise “Grandmother” of Native American lore.
Wanenmacher made several other Stealths, the largest of which is “My Trick Ride,” a lowrider artist’s take on the bomber. The 93-inch-tall piece’s surface is in sparkly pink automotive paint with yellow peace daisies. A central door opens to reveal a pink “pleather” upholstered interior tricked out with an MP3 player and a soundtrack. While it’s much more elaborate than the other Stealth works, and more playful, it doesn’t pluck the solemn swords-into-plowshares chord that the vintage tin pieces, despite their silly imagery, do.
This exhibit actually combines two bodies of work. In addition to the Stealth works, it includes a series of personal sculptures, with self-portraits wedding the artist’s image to the natural world. The most powerful of these is “Coyote’s Suit to Disguise Himself as Me,” a life-sized human figure constructed of inside-out coyote hides, the skin side coated with resin and hand-sewn, patchwork-style, into human outerwear, so to speak. Startlingly lifelike, the piece is somewhat grotesque. Except, of course, where Wanenmacher has reproduced her own tattoos on the coyote skin and allowed fur to peek through in a choice spot in her effigy. Her wicked sense of humor always comes through.
A very interesting departure from these works is “Starling Language Lesson,” a wooden shadow box incorporating a background scenic painting, a carved and painted wooden starling perched on a twig, and a video of Wanenmacher “interpreting” starling song. Bird lovers will appreciate her mimicry of startling calls and her “translations” – including a Rilke poem. In one instance, she translates the starling’s alarm as a cry of, “Snake’s eating the baby! Snake’s easting the baby!” Really, Wanenmacher should do more performance art. While the abrupt start-and-stop of the video and poor audio quality of my headphones was jarring, her serious demeanor is alternately hysterically funny and somber. The black-and-white, polka-dotted shirt she wears, matching the starling’s spotted feather dress, is a great touch. In this work, as some of the others, Wanenmacher is also speaking of disguise. In an artist’s statement she notes that the “powers-that-be” ignore agents of chaos; donning that mantle of invisibility allows Coyote (or the artist, in this case) to make statements that might otherwise make one the target of the powerful. How dangerous can a middle-aged woman in a polka-dotted shirt really be, anyway?
Only one of the pieces in this exhibit didn’t seem to fit; it was neither Stealth-related nor Wanenmacher-centric. “Born Again,” a cicada constructed of basswood, silk and shellac, belonged in a room of other insects. Somehow its golden translucence and meticulous underlying structure did not connect to the other works. The experience of seeing an exhibit is often affected by its totality as well as its individual works – the sum being the whole of the parts and the like – and when a piece could be deleted without effect on the overall impact, perhaps it should be.
I go see Wanenmacher’s exhibits because she is one of those rare artists who always seems to be dancing out there on the edge of the precipice where genius meets insanity, and I don’t want to miss it if she boogies right off the cliff. Maybe she already has; she’s just shape-shifted into a starling, or a pseudo-Stealth, and is flying around out there somewhere in the clouds, laughing.