Beauty and horror are often indistinguishable. One wraps itself in a fur coat made of the other and leaves the house in a hurry, stockings falling down, shoes unbuckled. Horrifying beauty is the kind of thing that begs us to look. Slight ugliness is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all: it is far easier to spend an hour gaping at a picture of Peggy Guggenheim or Lady Ottoline Morrell (who are only mildly unbeautiful) than to stare at a perfect Titian Venus, ideal and soft. Pure beauty is not challenging. A hooked nose or stick-out ears invite something more difficult and desirous than adoration.
In a new gallery space in the former Museum of Man, Haunch of Venison has staged an expansive and provocative show of horrifying beauty. "Mythologies" features the work of more than forty emerging and established international artists whose work volleys between the pleasant and the profane.
Some of my favorite works in "Mythologies" were three large-format photographs by Mat Collishaw. The photographs look like abstract paintings from across the room, but up close the viewer quickly realizes that the images are high-resolution photographs of crushed butterflies-- perhaps the most literal interpretation of destructive, unappealing, beautiful things.
Taxidermy also plays a large role in the exhibition (a popular contemporary art trend-- there was a great cover story about taxidermy and art in the March issue of Modern Painters). Taxidermists/ artists include Polly Morgan, who largely works with birds, and Jochem Hendricks, whose "Siblings" features two large stuffed dogs each carrying a smaller stuffed dog in its mouth in the middle of the gallery. The taxidermy interest makes sense-- in its former life, the gallery space hosted thr British Museum's extensive collection of ethnographical/ cabinet of curiosty objects.
Other highlights of the exhibition included works by Sophie Calle, Kiki Smith, Bill Viola, and Nicholas Hlobo.
While ethnographic museums have had a long and storied history, many are now nothing but dusty relics. As someone who often visits large halls of curiosity cabinets, I can attest to the fact that these places are living ghosts. Combining the old flavor of ethnography with the mission of a large-scale contemporary commercial gallery, "Mythologies" and Haunch of Venison are able to accomplish something rare with their new space. Haunch of Venison, like White Cube and Gagosian, is now able to mount museum-scale exhibitions with ultimate commercial means. Very few galleries mount scholarly shows while intending to make a profit, and it seems Haunch of Venison has made a real success of the new proper museum space.