Visitors to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art who venture into the museum’s new exhibition of contemporary sculpture by New York City artist Johnston Foster will find themselves surrounded by a menagerie of creatures that seems to have escaped from an absurd Saturday morning cartoon.
However, the theatrical spectacle created by Foster’s sculptures masks an underlying tension between his coarsely constructed creatures and the man-made world they inhabit — a tension fueled by an instinctive competition for survival.
“Disenchanted Forest: Contemporary Art by Johnston Foster,” consists of seven sculptures — six of which are equipped with animatronics — made from everyday objects. Through these sculptures, Foster explores the often mistrustful and sometimes hostile relationship between man and nature. In “Reason Belongs in the Wilderness” (2003-2004), Foster demonstrates the collision of the natural and man-made worlds through a raccoon’s struggle to free his entangled kite from an elaborate chandelier.
“The raccoon is a mischievous animal from the natural world, but it has created an urban presence for itself,” Foster said. “The chandelier is the man-made world of indulgence and extravagance. The kite brings the two together in what seems a never-ending conflict.”
Foster’s unique visual language is a derivative of his life-long exposure to pop culture, mainly through television. His cartoon-like sculptures reflect the imagery and iconography of television and use that familiar language to promote further inquiry into the meanings of his work. “You learn the world from T.V.,” Foster said. “People know so many things without ever experiencing them first hand. As an artist I use that as a means of communicating.”
Foster uses found materials such as duct tape, traffic cones, Venetian blinds, trash cans, packing peanuts, scraps of wood, and many other types of scavenged items to create his sculptures. He says the process of finding and including these discarded materials in his work is itself a metaphor for adaptation and survival. By using only what is available in his surrounding environment, Foster gives new life to the wastes and byproducts of human existence by taking them out of their original context and fashioning them into works of art.
In “Miracle Grow” (2003), Foster transforms green and yellow duct tape into the leaves, stems and jaws of domesticated Venus flytraps that jitter about in their pots. “Venus flytraps, for me, have always been fascinating because of their evolution and adaptation over millions of years into a carnivorous plant, and the extremes it underwent in order to survive.”
The coarse craftsmanship of Foster’s work and the low-tech mechanisms that animate his sculptures stem from the artist’s desire to allow the viewer to see how each sculpture was made. Through this “shoddiness,” as Foster calls it, which is exaggerated by his use of recycled materials, the artist intimates that man's pursuit of luxury comes at a high price and challenges viewer to question the lengths they will go to in order to satisfy their desires.
“Disenchanted Forest: Contemporary Art by Johnston Foster” will be on display in the Warren & Alice Jones and Paul & Betty Boshard galleries on the second floor of the museum. This exhibition is free and open to the public during regular museum hours.
Reason Belongs in the Wilderness
Courtesy of BYU Museum of Art