Book Review: Human: The Art of Beth Cavener

Nicola Rigby reviews Human – a stunning visual retrospective of the work of sculptor Beth Caverner, which asks the question, ‘how good are we at confronting our unvarnished nature?’…

by Nicola Rigby

Listen to an audio version of this article here.

I am a sucker for a coffee table book. Those weighty tomes which, in a golden age murder mystery, you might clout someone around the head with before making your escape.

David Bower is often credited with inventing and perfecting the ‘big pictorial book’. As leader of the Sierra Club, his aim was greater environmental awareness. However, the idea of a book for display or ‘a book for a parlour window’ is mentioned in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. That book was published in 1759 and no doubt the concept can be traced back even further.

The appeal, from my point of view, is visual hedonism. It is the ocular equivalent of a sticky toffee pudding, utterly indulgent and thoroughly absorbing.

Running a finger across one of my overladen shelves I rediscovered a book I had been gifted and, in the festive flurry which followed, had barely spent any time with. Human: The Art of Beth Cavener is a substantial monograph. It is, in fact, heavier than my dog.

Weighty, glossy and engaging from its cover, this is the story of almost two decades of Beth Cavener’s work. Cavener is a sculptor, a ceramist, and eloquent in the language of emotional reality. As it says in Garth Clark’s introduction, ‘not only are Cavener’s sculpted animal forms actually human portraits, they also depict individuals she has encountered in real life’.

Her art is human experience by proxy, with animals acting as the agents. ‘Assigning animal identities’ to others was a coping mechanism Cavener adopted as a child. It became a compelling way of viewing others and, eventually, the basis of her work.

Many aspects of Cavener’s approach resonate with me as an artist, even the way she talks about clay is familiar:

“It has the most incredible sensitivity to touch. Not only is the inert nature of the material alluring with its ties to the primitive and raw, but its voice spans a wide range of sensual, violent and careless textural possibilities…Every intimacy with the material is preserved.

Husk

Any artist enamoured with anatomy (like myself) can spot the amateur’s misstep of sculpting or drawing an animal with a structurally human eye but Cavener uses this as a device to reveal the truth of her work. These are people she is depicting. The eyes of her sculptures confront us with guilt or shame or fury. They speak a very human language.

At the same time, some of Cavener’s most powerful pieces have their eyes closed or blankly filmed with paint. I Am No One evokes a visceral reaction without the need for the hare, which is the subject of the work, to meet the viewer’s eye. The fact that the poor creature doesn’t, brings home the cowering anticipation of a blow even more sharply.

I Am No One

Human does not always make for comfortable viewing. The emotions and situations depicted are not easy ones. Cavener says, “I really want to make these uncomfortable aspects of our humanity somehow more beautiful, poignant and sensitive. I want to pry at those difficult, awkward edges between animal and human.”

Animal instinct is an undeniable undercurrent. You cannot help but ask which of these behaviours are rooted in our primitive brain? In the instincts modern society professes to have shrugged off in favour of rationality?

There is a muscular physicality to the work. Moments of self-aggression, of mouths locked on limbs. Contorted, intermeshing bodies and sobering vulnerability. I wonder, would we be able to view these tableaus at all if they were human? Would we be able to more than glance at them before turning away?

How good are we at confronting our unvarnished nature?

Cavener has found a way. She is an emotional pathfinder. A human archivist.

Ezra Shales, in an article which appends the book, describes Cavener’s 2017 work Caress vividly:
“its creamy white head seems directed almost as if to resemble Narcissus in search of his reflection in the sleek steel shelf. The goat looks wondrously soft, as if it were extruded out of a tube of cream cheese. And while its jaw bone and hair are scraped and knifed by Cavener’s fingers into realization, there is a tenderness and delicacy to this fragment, the head. Here the artist has fabricated an event using minimal actors and only the animated gesture of an eager tongue.”

Caress

Therein lies the skill of Cavener’s work – the seeming simplicity of a posture or a look which speaks volumes. It speaks of people and not flatteringly, only truthfully. Ezra Shales, again, sums it up neatly:

“it is hard to look at Spanish Feral Meat Goats without sensing that human hands trussed goat flesh and bound those bodies […] each rope also magnifies the intense presence of their assailants and our fear of this brutality. We are implicated in Cavener’s network of interlaced victimization, and we shift our feet from being hunted to becoming hunters – and back again, embarrassed by our innate sadism”

Spanish Feral Meat Goats

There is nothing gift-shop-window about these animal sculptures because they are human animals. The consequences and realities of human nature are played out in each work of art and the works themselves often refuse to be confined to the pedestal. They strain away from plinths, hang suspended, bear their own weight or are pinned to the wall, galvanised by the force of human nature.

The tension Cavener captures between the human and the animal is beautifully offset by gentle, tender gestures and dark humour. After spending time with this book, I cannot shake the striking images of Beth Cavener’s menagerie of human animals.

Tangled Up in You

Nicola Rigby is a Friend of the RWA and a writer and sculptor from Devon, UK.

Meet the artist: Nicola Rigby

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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