Recently with our constant free-flowing shit show in American politics, I find myself thinking with surprising frequency: Fuck that shit, I’m going to space. Taken from a prevalent meme featuring a shark flying through the star-lined galaxy, my intergalactic daydreams of escape, star cruising into space never to look back, now have an articulated vision. I need to go to a noxiously neon planet inhabited by little green aliens and poodles, as depicted in the paintings of Margot Bird. That is my utopia.
Bird’s paintings, on display in her recent exhibition Poodle Saga at Sargent’s Daughters, were a revelation, providing a spark of inspiration like kitsch kismet. Even though the exhibition sadly closed yesterday, every so often an exhibition comes along that is so eye opening, I’m forced to throw out the accepted art critic wisdom of only raving about shows that are currently open. Viewing Bird’s paintings and sculptures, which are largely amalgamations of porcelain poodle tchotchkes, I became determined to put on a space suit and blast off to the Poodle Planet. I felt like spooky Agent Fox Mulder. Though I’ve always leaned toward Scully’s skepticism, I wholeheartedly wanted to believe.
The first painting viewers confronted as they walked in Sargent’s Daughters was the surprisingly subdued Charm Bracelet. I say subdued, but it was only by comparison to the other works in the exhibition. With its blindingly bright animal print backdrop, which would be an envy-worthy eyesore if worn, the painting showcases a gold charm bracelet fitted with dual Saturn and poodle charms, introducing the two overarching themes of Poodle Saga.
From there, it just gets weirder. And thank god–who couldn’t use a psychedelic trip to planet tack in 2018? In one painting, a poodle gazes in awe at an in-flight alien, who wears bouffanted blonde wig fitted with a lovely bow, soaring over a burning landscape. In another, a gaggle of multicolored poodles peer over a green alien in a gaudy chain necklace. One poodle holds scissors, indicating that this is perhaps an alien autopsy or a bizarre canine abduction. And in yet another, the poodles have transformed into butterflies, flitting around their polka dotted planet as two exercise-loving aliens jog around its circumference. Like alien transmissions from Planet Claire, Bird’s paintings look like physical representations of all of The B-52’s’ obsessions from their wild planet color schemes to fantastical spacescapes and of course, poodles. I wanted to start screaming out the lyrics to “Quiche Lorraine” right in the middle of the gallery. I’m talkin’ bout QUICHE!
Not only are these scenes wonderfully baffling, not to mention hilarious, but Bird’s chosen colors are, well, a tad aggressive–Pepto pink, odious orange, putrid purple and garish green. Similar to Cary Leibowitz’s preference for campily offensive color choices, mining the colors everyone avoids like the plague at the art store, Bird’s colors are, at times, difficult and even, physically painful to look at. They command your attention with gleeful play with bad taste that John Waters would undoubtedly admire.
With her paintings, Bird also displayed a series of ceramic sculptures that engage in a similar devotion to thrift store detritus as Mike Kelley. In Poodle Birth, a black poodle figurine explodes with two heads of white poodles on long highlighter-yellow necks, while in Poodle Vase, poodle heads fleck a gaudy golden vase. It’s like your Italian grandmother’s knick-knack collection after a nuclear blast.
Now, I’ve always appreciated pop cultural representations of aliens. From Bowie to Klaus Nomi, how could you not love the alien? Aliens are one of the original tropes of the trash aesthetic, perfected in the b-movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Though the potential origin of this alien aesthetic might be an H.G. Wells article “Man of the Year Million,” published in 1893, this typical rendering of the green or grey-skinned alien with giant almond eyes and an unseeing gaze, as seen in Bird’s paintings, became ubiquitous in the 1990s. From The X-Files to Club Kid raver trends, the 1990s went full-blown alien crazy.
While clearly imbued with a 1990s throwback with her vivid hues, butterflies and aliens that resemble items, from jewelry to patches, that I’d covet at Claire’s as a mall rat child, Bird’s paintings don’t feel like a tragically romanticized version of the pre-millennium. Instead, they are, at once, future gazing and nostalgic, much like most cultural obsessions with aliens. But, perhaps there’s a closer link to be made with Bird’s paintings and the 1990’s alien fad. In 1996, The New York Times, in an article entitled “Alien Beings Abduct Pop Culture,” chalked up this extraterrestrial explosion to “apprehension over the new millennium, distrust of government and traditional information sources, New Age spiritual yearnings and anxieties about sexuality in the risk-averse 1990’s.” Apprehension, distrust and anxiety certainly define our era too. Who wouldn’t look to peaceful invaders riding a poodle, while contemplating the international rise of the far right?
Of course, Bird isn’t the only artist to be fascinated by aliens. And no, I’m not just talking about David Huggins, the man who paints the beloved extraterrestrial who took his virginity. Mike Kelley, too, with his interest in American low culture was naturally also fascinated by ufology. In his article On the Aesthetics of Ufology (excerpted from an interview with M.A. Greenstein), Kelley articulates his interest in the juxtaposition between the futuristic and abject: “I’m particularly drawn to the stream of ufology where there is an almost utopian fixation with the hi-tech image of the flying saucer, but this is paired with an alien being of monstrous form, or other abject elements. One of the most consistent features of ufology is this meeting of hi-tech fetishism and symbolic body loathing.”
However, far from being the monstrous beings described by Kelley, Bird’s aliens seem to sport their own form of otherworldly opulence, occasionally defined by material objects. These are fashion conscious cosmic beings who don necklaces, rings and wigs. Take, for example, Alien Glamour Hand, which features a thin and elegantly skeletal hand. Classy red nail polish and a swanky golden watch offset the alien subject’s sickening greenish glow, transforming this potentially dangerous creature into pure glamour.
This theme of transformation runs throughout the exhibition, not just with the aliens’ consumerist impulses. Poodles, too, are canine representations of transformation. Without the eponymous haircut, poodles resemble your average dog, but given the right coup, they are prim and proper reflections of upper class fancy. Let’s be honest, poodles are basically the drag queens of the pups. But, in Bird’s hands, the poodles do more than just get a haircut, including becoming butterflies. Other times, though, the poodles’ transformations aren’t so whimsically unthreatening, as seen in Poodle Planet in which the poodles seem to grow uncannily surreal, distorted necks.
Even with this sense of transformative potential, which is imbued with both possibility and danger, Bird’s work resists easy narratives, despite the use of saga in the show’s title. In that, Bird leaves room for, as David Lynch would say, dreaming. And right now, we need that escape hatch to another world. Like the random UFO flying swooping past the Red Room in Twin Peaks, Poodle Saga allowed for a mysterious respite, through a trip 53 Miles West of Venus.