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Features / September 15, 2010

Animal Antics: Why Lorraine Simms Paints Plush

The Montreal painter Lorraine Simms is something of a Web voyeur. Her relationship with Internet images is long-standing and has produced some of her most enthralling projects. I came to know her a few years ago, when she was creating a series called Fugitive, which then consisted of a dozen large paintings of women’s faces. Each subject was a fugitive from the law (most were wanted for fraud), and was painted by Simms in blown-up, extreme close-up intimacy from thumbnail-sized pictures she found primarily online. These women inspired the artist with the fluidity of their identities, their ability to shape-shift, to change appearance, name and personal history as new aliases became necessary for their survival. The transformative process that happened when Simms translated her digital source material into vibrantly coloured canvases was delightfully appropriate: she aided them by concealing these fugitives further in a camouflage of pigment.

Lately, Simms has been on the hunt for a new imagery. I think it’s fair to say she’s been obsessing. It all started a couple of years ago when she came upon a picture of a little girl in a deer costume. “She was wearing a little track suit, a really ugly track suit, with headgear; it looked like her mom had made it,” she tells me in her studio. “With the stuffed antlers and everything. She was posed in front of a tile wall, so the flash made this kind of reflection on the tiles. You have to ask yourself why a parent would put a photograph like this online.” From there, it was a quick jump into the seductive—and eerie—world of plushophilia.

Emulating animals is the most natural way in the world to transcend oneself. Critters are a purer form of man; in both their innocence and their wild unpredictability, they represent the unachievable human goals of authenticity, unselfconsciousness and communion with forces that we strive everyday, in our plastic world, to control and contain. As we collectively cut the umbilical cord connecting us to Mother Nature with an ever sharper and bloodier blade, her natural bounty gains in symbolic potency. Throughout the millennia, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Shary Boyle’s drawings (via centaurs, Minotaurs, Zeus and Vishnu), animal hybridity has been used as a portal through which to escape the physical, spiritual, psychological and sexual constraints imposed by the human body and consciousness. Plushies propagate this tradition by finding freedom in their fetish to express a hidden part of themselves; through their appreciation for stuffed animals or their donning of a plush animal costume, they access a superhuman, animalistic, often sexualized plane of existence. By the same token, though, the fetish differs from other variants of animal anthropomorphism in one important respect: the “animal” nature its imagery draws from is completely man-made. Plushies’ costumes are fashioned out of unnatural, candy-coloured polyester fake fur and sport big googly cartoon eyes. There is no interest in making the animals seem naturalistic; rather, the plushophiliac fetish necessitates an artificial sensibility.

The artists who have converged around an imagery of fake-fur characters as potent symbols for sublimated childhoods, perverted natures, contemporary psychosexual proclivities and so on are much more prevalent than you’d think, I can assure you. There’s Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, but closer to home there were Valérie Lamontagne’s Advice Bunny performances of the early 2000s, which saw the artist don a bunny costume and host in-gallery therapy sessions. There’s Vincent Lafrance’s Le raton laveur video, for which he pieced together a raccoon costume and then wore it to join his real raccoon brethren in the wild. There’s Mitchell Wiebe, with both his paintings and, more pointedly, his onstage musical performances (he dresses up as a beast to front his band), and Janet Werner, who has been known to slip animal heads into her paintings. Both Stephen Schofield and Trevor Gould touch upon cartoonish, liminal beings like Mickey Mouse and incorporate animal features into their figurative sculptures, as does Marcel Dzama—more and more, in fact, judging from his first solo museum show at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, which featured a three-dimensional fur suit as well as drawings of the costumed beings that inspired it.

Among all these plushophiliaphiles, no one nears the single-minded dedication of Lorraine Simms. Her nods to plush began subtly, as a surreptitious undercurrent in one or two works, but it quickly became her dominant theme. Simms isn’t temporarily adopting the fetish itself, like Lamontagne, Lafrance or Wiebe, who wear or have worn costumes; nor is she quoting and manipulating plushophilia, integrating a transformed version of it into her own artistic vision, like Dzama, Gould and Schofield. Simms is documenting it. She’s reproducing, in paint, images from the Internet that were posted by the Joe Blow and John Doe of the plushie scene. Since 2008, she has been fetishizing the fetish.

Isa Tousignant: What tipped you off that this plush thing was the opening of a Pandora’s box?

Lorraine Simms: It was the new year, and I wanted to do something a little bit different.

IT: It was after the fugitives?

LS: After Fugitive, yes. The portraits of all thos women wanted for fraud. I thought that I wanted to do still life, but I’ve always had difficulty with it; I can’t set them up, they don’t make sense to me. You get a bunch of things in front of you and it doesn’t…I can’t get excited about it.

IT: Why did you want to do it then? You wanted to confront that feeling?

LS: I could learn something by returning to direct observation, perhaps because I’d been painting these images from the Internet, and I thought that I could find a way into the world of objects that way. I don’t know: I was curious and I was also frustrated with myself that I couldn’t do it. Perversely, I started painting from books; I started copying still lifes by the Old Masters. I was painting dead rabbits, so, you know, it got me looking on the Internet for images of rabbits, and I came across an image of a man in a rabbit costume, which brought back the immediate, visceral connection I felt when I saw that picture of the girl in the deer costume. I thought, ‘This is so interesting, this is so bizarre, so strange.’ I love that, following that little lead.

IT: So you were back to the Internet after all. How much of your imagery do you find online for your plushies works?

LS: Most of it, though I had to start using myself or models to get certain parts, like the eyes, because the images I find are so pixellated. But I love so much about them. Sometimes it’s like a gift. The lighting, the awkwardness of the setting—in some photos there are drapes just hanging there, like the person’s just come out of a changing room. It looks like a curtain in a theatre. I mean, I will do things, I’ll move elements around, but I love the little details of the images as they are. It’s their quirks that get my imagination going.

IT: Did you dive into the history of animals in art before you transitioned into plushies? There’s this idea that when humans take on animal characteristics it frees them so they can become either mythical or just bestial. What’s crazy about plushies is that it’s all so artificial. Did you get into all that?

LS: No, not in the way you say. As soon as I started, from reproducing classic dead-game works by Chardin to discovering this weird plushie imagery, I didn’t go back, but rather did it very much in keeping with how I usually work, which is by bouncing around, going back and forth. Because I’m interested in the intersection of art history and contemporary art, painting and culture, I started experiencing a heightened awareness of things like geckos trying to sell me cellphones. We’re so removed from any authentic experience of nature today, and we miss it, and we want it, and we need it, so we’re creating it. But what we create has really very little to do with the actual experience. Our understanding of animals comes through imagery, through movies, the Internet, myths, children’s stories, fantasies.

IT: What about the process of painting? You’re one of the few artists who quotes plushophilia in paint rather than photography, video or sculpture. Does your medium give a particular importance to the subject matter?

LS: I think so, yes. Just the very fact of doing the paintings—the time involved, the process and the historical weight associated with painting—gives some kind of gravitas, brings the subject into a history and a dialogue. I absolutely love photography, but it is more ephemeral and more of the moment. By making a painting you kind of freeze a subject within a historical time. You elevate it. And I’m using those words with real understanding; I’m not saying you do, but the history of painting tends to posit that you do: the size, the scale, the potential for magnificence. And then you have my hand, so as a viewer you’re always aware that it’s an interpretation and that it’s a subjective interaction with the subject, defined by the limitations of my own mind-body.

IT: Do you feel that technology is important in your work, that it gives you a sudden intimacy with people you would never encounter in real life?

LS: Yes, absolutely. I feel like I’m observing the observer, in a way. The Internet allows us to go places we could never otherwise go. I started looking at people’s sites, you know, where they have their own cameras, they’re posting their every movement. It becomes really fascinating to assume that voyeuristic gaze and see these things, which seem sometimes so mundane and at the same time so absolutely extraordinary. These animal costumes, they kind of intersect with that because people like to reveal themselves in their costumes. And they feel perhaps more outgoing or uninhibited in their costumes than they do without them.

IT: It comes back, in fact, to your interest in Fugitive, in the dissimulation and transformation of self. Plushies are just another type of shape-shifter, in a sense.

LS: You know, you’re right. Everyone is aware of the changing nature of identity; of identity theft, passing yourself off as someone else. I think my role and, perhaps, if you’ll allow me the generalization, the role of painters who are interested in observable reality is to translate it. That’s where the sociological part comes in, because I’m looking around and I try to weigh it out. I want and I have always wanted painting to be current. I want it to be part of a contemporary dialogue. I don’t want it to be relegated to the abstract or the past. I want it to be really engaged, and I like to come into the world as an engaged observer. But not as a moralizer: I don’t want to proselytize through my work; I really want to use it to learn about the world and come to terms with it. At the same time as I’m engaged in this very old profession, I can be thinking about very new things.

SPOTLIGHT This series of essays on emerging Canadian artists is sponsored by the Fraser Elliot Foundation in Memory of Betty Ann Elliot.

This is an article from the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.