Nick Lenker’s family bestiary

Nick Lenker, Portrait of my Mother
Portrait of my Mother, by Nick Lenker; it’s not a pretty portrait

Family portraits merge love and horror, in Nick Lenker’s new exhibit, “Beautiful Amnesia,” at Padlock Gallery.

The exhibit of eight or so computer-generated drawings, two large ceramic sculptures and two series of small ceramic sculptures are fierce, the people portrayed as animals. The drawings of beasts, with ravening teeth and blood dripping from their maws, have cartoon and stuffed animal and toy qualities that barely ameliorate the gore.

It’s that unsentimental tenderness, the willingness to face the dark side that consistently distinguishes Lenker’s work–the acknowledgment of how fiercely we all fight not just for corporeal survival but for the survival of our souls and our psyches.

Nick Lenker, Elephant in the Room
Elephant in the Room, a portrait of Lenker’s grandfather

The largest pieces, two yard-high ceramic sculptures, are the most peaceful works in the room. Elephant in the Room stands with grenades tucked under his paunch, golden bandoleros draped across. My Savior, my King is a crouching baboon (at least I think that’s what it was) in kingly regalia, his toy-length sword pointed up–an act of love.

Nick Lenker untitled, detail
Untitled, detail of a series of small, tubby little figures with scary, Italianate, Medieval-looking masks strapped on

A wall of ceramic hunting-trophy cat heads supports the theme of love and blood sport. A small series of untitled teletubbies bearing crude weapons and strapped into medieval Roman masks sizzle with danger–psychic danger.

Nick Lenker, Self-Portrait

The drawings are the bloodiest of all–a sort of Bruegel-overwrought level of activity, a Boschian Seven Deadly Sins moral tale of human corruption.

Drawn with a computer mouse, the edgy, jerky line makes them look nothing like standard-issue 20-something cartoons. The colors are intense, the fields sometimes scribbled in. Bits of computer imagery–birds, airplanes and toys–also appear.

But it’s the gore amid the childhood memories that riveted me. As in a Medieval bestiary, each family member is depicted as an animal or toy. The milieu is war. The moral lessons here are not about elevation of the spirit but rather of the human spirit’s indomitable nature. In Self-Portrait, Lenker is a ripped and bruised sock monkey beset by an army of elephants and bombers while a cheerful jackal (really, it may be a deer) rides his back.

Nick Lenker, Portrait of my Father
Portrait of my Father

Portrait of my Father shows a dangerously enthusiastic wolf with a backpack, sitting in a pool of blood supplied by a couple of flayed rabbits (or kids) hanging off a stick. The mix of specific details of family history mixed with the fantastic bestiary of Lenker’s imagination delivers take-no-prisoners portraits.

By the way, to get into this gallery, you’ll have to go to the web site and send an email. Here’s my Flickr set for more photos (I’m expecting the triptych Birth Scene to be added to the group).