EPIC ACTION Moose face off in “Untitled #133.”
Weird stuff is happening in Simen Johan's photos in the exhibit "Until the Kingdom Comes" at Brown University's Bell Gallery (64 College St, Providence, through Feb. 17). It's a world of mysterious signs and portents.
A pair of foxes with bloody snouts sit up, huddled together, squinting against the cold snow. Green parakeets perch in and around the racks of bloody moose dueling under a stormy sky. Muddy, snarling wild dogs roam the puddles and seaweed of a marsh at low tide. Snakes fill dead trees in a rocky canyon. Two snowy owls sit smiling atop a picnic table at some misty forest preserve. A sad-eyed white deer steps through the trees of a snowy hillside. White fur against the snow, it nearly disappears, totally camouflaged.
Johan's critters often seem exhausted or angry or perhaps disoriented from wandering into the wrong place at the wrong time. Some take on human characteristics, like a lemur that sits upright, lounging in a tree lazily sniffing at a white flower. Johan's images feel like scenes out of fairy tales or apocalyptic Hollywood action epics. And they're that kind of fun — dark and moody, sort of gimmicky, entertaining illusions.
Johan's earlier photos felt more like The Twilight Zone or David Lynch by way of the staged fine art narrative photos of Gregory Crewdson and the ecological fables painted by Walton Ford. Kids played with big bugs or piles of cigarettes. Snow poured out a living room chimney. A boy stood on a train, smiling as if in need of an exorcist. The animal photos are subtle by comparison.
IN THE WILD The “entertaining illusion” of “Untitled #136.”
The New York-based photographer, who was born in Norway and raised in Sweden, achieves his realistic look with a mix of reality and digital trickery. The lamb was a live animal, held in position by a farmer, who Johan Photoshopped out of the picture, Bell Gallery director Jo-Ann Conklin explains. The foxes were road kill. The fighting moose were taxidermied animals he found in a museum. A photo of an elk fallen over next to a tree and dripping icicles depicts an animal he found in a taxidermy shop and sprayed with water. Often he digitally inserts the animals into landscapes he has photographed elsewhere.
The results of these special effects at times crackle with mythic resonance. A lamb sits like a person in a misty green field and seems to stare at us. As a symbol it's perhaps too on the nose, conjuring associations with "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and lions lying down with lambs and Jesus as the sacrificial "Lamb of God."
In another image, a massive dark bison with a muddy beard lies in the dirt of some sort of dump; its eye watches us from the shadows. It looks like it could be drooling, collapsed. This tired bison — an animal long a symbol of the American Great Plains as well as a creature revered by Native Americans — hovers between interpretations. It's both a massive defeated beast and (perhaps) a symbol of a weary nation.