Chris Garofalo: aquibotanous zoolatry

Rhona Hoffman Gallery: May 21 - Jun 25, 2010

Chris Garofalo, Protea Mus Auris, 2010, glazed porcelain, 14 x 11 x 7 in.
Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Though not a Realist per se, the Chicago based sculptor Chris Garofalo takes inspiration from various life forms. She works primarily in porcelain or clay to create objects that visually fuse and elaborate on elements found in both fauna and flora, terrestrial and marine life. The title of her recent exhibition, “aquibotanous zoolatry,” drew attention to this unique mélange by using a fanciful combination of words that describe this water-plant-like-animal-infatuation.

Though Garofalo’s sculptures are rich in associations, they are determinedly independent from scientific factuality, containing familiar characteristics, but avoiding specifics. They remain somewhat vague; and the closer one studies their textures, colors and patterns, the more they lose their initial resemblance to something identifiable. Surfaces covered with delicate spikes allude as much to sea urchins as to cacti, as full of familiarity as they are of fictional wonder. One can imagine Garofalo’s elegant creatures at home on the bottom of oceans, in the middle of deserts or on an unknown, distant planets.

While much of Garofalo’s inspiration derives directly from the natural world, her overall aesthetic also reveals a keen interest in the human interpretation of nature. She collects and studies illustrated science books, for example, and the work of the 19th Century German biologist Ernst Haeckel is an obvious reference. In contrast to Haeckel or other scientists, however, Garofalo does not aim for literal translations. Instead, she creates what she thinks of as independent organisms that grow and develop somewhat autonomously. Rather than enacting the role of a creator who controls each step of the artistic process, she reacts to the various transitional stages of her objects, guiding forms along when they occur and allowing them to expand naturally.

Seen together, Garofalo’s works evoke the notion of a Sammelsurium. The gallery space transforms into an otherworldly laboratory or secret garden, in which different species sprout from suspended wooden platforms or protrude from walls. Despite their delicate size, Garofalo’s sculptures succeed in summing up the eclectic riches of natural formal diversity. Though her work presents itself as a poetic contemplation of existing natural forms, it also celebrates evolution and its inherent string of unpredictable transformations. Whereas scientists aim to decipher life’s secrets, Garofalo seems eager to preserve them. Exquisitely crafted with a unique sensibility for composition, her work is far from decorative, hinting at serious ecological and environmental concerns. Despite its beauty, it is an avid reminder of the fragility of life’s many creatures and creations.