Divining the entrails

New Last Gasp releases explore the unsettling art of Laurie Lipton and Elizabeth McGrath

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Some pig: Elizabeth McGrath's Schwein Haben (2008)
COURTESY OF LAST GASP

arts@sfbg.com

LIT On the cover of Incurable Disorder (Last Gasp, 2013), an adolescent deer covered in a thick pelt of diamond-bright Swarovski crystals gazes calmly outward, as ruby-red rhinestone blood drips from the points where golden arrows sprout cruelly from its graceful frame. Upon opening the book we see the piece — The Folly of St. Hubertus, 2010 in its entirety. It's a delicate, eight-legged anomaly, weeping, bleeding, and glittering all at the same time, housed within an austere glass-paneled case like a hunting trophy bagged in an enchanted forest, which many of Elizabeth McGrath's strange creations resemble.

A bestiary of improbable wonders awaits within the pages of this confidently-designed coffee-table book: the mounted heads of tattooed rabbits and stags whose majestic horns are tangled with sails or telephone wires; bucktoothed rodents and circus bears with windows to alternate, dystopian landscapes planted in their chubby tummies; a cross-sectioned, gilt-edged pig with a pair of tiny, Victorian-style dollhouses firmly ensconced in its oozy-looking pink innards. Juxtaposition is the key word to many of these modernist mash-ups, and indeed, the LA-based "Bloodbath" McGrath is a favorite artist of famously outsider Juxtapoz magazine.

Inhabiting a territory too grisly to be labeled whimsical and too cartoonish to be labeled truly morbid, McGrath's relentlessly askew dioramas and sculptures subvert the pop-goth ghetto of icky-cute by cutting just a little too close to the bone. Looking in the eyes of her mutilated menagerie inspires the same sense of fascination and bemused regret that accompanies the contemplation of roadkill or fetal pigs floating in formaldehyde. Her darkly incandescent aesthetic is reminiscent of Christiane Cegavske's stop-motion tour de force Blood Tea and Red String (2006), wistful and powerful, playful and primal all at the same time

If twisting the familiar tropes of pop art appears to be a guiding principle behind McGrath's dark menagerie, you can see the mechanics of a more classical approach in the equally haunting art of Laurie Lipton. Prosaically entitled The Drawings of Laurie Lipton (Last Gasp, 2013), the front piece of her book, a work entitled Round and Round (2012), demonstrates a folly of a non-sainted kind, a clutter of grinning skeletons driving in an endless circle around a lonely pair of old-fashioned gas pumps perched atop a wasteland of bones and pipes.

Lipton's photorealistic, black-and-white line drawings bring to mind the highly-detailed engravings of Albrecht Dürer, an artist Lipton confesses an affinity for. But unlike Dürer, who favored woodcuts and watercolors, Lipton's tools are charcoal and pencils, and her self-devised method of creating depth and texture with layer upon layer of incredibly fine lines and crosshatching gives her work a distinctive allure. Each white line is the result of the negative space being painstakingly filled in around each, rather than the judicious application of a white pencil (or, for that matter, an eraser), and this obsessive penchant for detail manifests itself further in the amount of same stuffed into each dystopian landscape: mountains of bones, webs spun from hundreds of threads, bushes covered in thousands of tiny leaves, each unique.

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