"Look at the earrings on that giraffe" is not a phrase one often overhears at an art opening, and the fact that I heard it uttered at David Hevel's new exhibit, Fierce, was only one of the many reasons why the show was "off the chain," as the kids are saying these days. Where, oh where, do I begin? I entered the packed gallery to hear Justin Timberlake rocking everyone's body over the speakers and stopped dead in my tracks to gawk at a seven-foot-tall sculpture of a realistic life-sized tiger rearing up on its hind legs in a giant pot of cascading faux flora and huge glittery gold butterflies. For a moment, it was like nobody else was in the room -- just Beyoncé's animal likeness and me. Fantastically overwhelming, forcibly glee inducing, and straight up hilarious, the tiger was mesmerizing. The pedestal-like flowerpot overflowed with giant gardenias, birds of paradise, and greenery so lush I didn't even notice the gaudy fakeness of it all. It felt like walking around Liz Taylor's Animal Safari. Lily pads among iridescent aqua-blue puddles and two swans surrounded the tiger, its jaws dripping with sticky golden drool, off-setting its long brunette wig, ostentatious crystal necklaces, and wildly humanistic eyes.
About to be pounced upon by the tiger was Mariah Carey as a goat standing precariously on piles of small silk pillows. I noticed happily that Mariah's teeth seemed a bit pearlescent. Oakland-based Hevel, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, said the goat, though life-sized, was not so true to form. He mentioned something about the head looking better closer to the hip so he'd cut out part of the body. I nodded as if I knew all about reconstructive surgery for farm animals.
Also draped in jewels and radiating sparkly golden butterflies, Mariah gazed across the gallery at a tiny gold-leafed deer called Little Lord Suri, representing the incredibly hyped, already super-famous child of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I told Hevel the Suri piece was extremely timely since her photos had been released by Vanity Fair the previous day -- Hevel admitted he wished he'd brought a tiny black wig to add to the baby deer so she'd look more like Hollywood's newest "It" Girl.
The gallery also displays pigment prints of Hevel's other celebrity baby sculptures, including a stunning example called Big Anna (Baby Nicole). The baby portraits are reminiscent of 18th century French paintings, though instead of nude women or Napoleon, they feature exotic looking animals dressed in fur, sitting in lushly staged environments. One portrait I loved in particular was a doe-eyed, silly-looking Bambi sitting among ferns and toadstools.
Hevel was in a show called Nancy Boy at the Richmond Art Center earlier this year that involved male artists commenting on feminism, a feat he accomplishes brilliantly. And aside from Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, I haven't seen many artists commenting on the world's obsession with celebrity status. Hevel's symbolism is flawless and his work is equal parts glamour, humor, and hideousness. He uses Styrofoam taxidermy forms to create his celebrity creatures and buys animal skins at a place called Hollywood Love Rug, then dyes them to look like the appropriate hide. The work is not about animal preservation or glorification, Hevel has no interest in taxidermy, he simply draws attention to the overly accessorized jungle that is Hollywood. But Hevel isn't aiming to criticize his famous subjects; he merely puts a freshly hilarious spin on the already spun images of the celebrity set that permeate the media. Because celebrities are made out to be larger-than-life and better-than-your-average-human, glamorized animals seemed the perfect way to represent them. And think of how fun it would be to take Hevel's craft to the next level, dressing up enormous exotic pets with all the Neil Lane jewels and extravagant hair extensions you could get your hands on. I sense a new hobby for absurdly rich girls everywhere.
I smiled throughout my tour of Hevel's exhibit. Not only did I have a chance to meet and chat with the artist, who was very nice and forthcoming and not at all pretentious as he toted one of his two tiny children around his exhibit, but I relished viewing work that aimed to be funny. Artists are all desperately trying to communicate something, but usually it's something of a more serious nature. When asked what his kids thought of his work, Hevel laughed and said they definitely had opinions and would tell him what they liked and what looked scary. He also admitted that walking down the street, one of his children might pick up a rogue silk flower and ask if Hevel wanted it for his art. He noted that it was a little freaky that the kids -- neither much older than Suri -- were already picking up on his style.
Hevel's Love Angel Music Baby sculpture was around a corner in the back of the gallery and was absent of an animal form save for a mountain lion's tongue and teeth that protruded from stacked bird baths spilling over with flowers, tiny pink birds, blonde locks of hair, and an impressively enormous plastic pink diamond. Appropriately, Gwen Stefani happened to be on the stereo singing about having expensive taste as I stared at the garishly gorgeous piece.
Fierce is a word Tyra Banks uses every chance she gets on her ruthlessly intellectually stimulating reality show, America's Next Top Model. It's become her trademark statement and inspired the title and central piece of Hevel's exhibit -- the giraffe I mentioned earlier. Towering above the gallery at twelve feet, the giraffe's head and neck protrude from the wall and giant ants on the floor trail its long beaded necklaces. Framed by plants and orange and red flowers, the giraffe wore humongous hoop earrings had at least two feet of shells dangling from them -- in a word, amazing. Hevel says his work sells well and he's often surprised at what people will buy for their homes. He said his wife has minimalist taste and his sculptures don't decorate their living space. Like a fabulously glamorized hunter's den, or collaboration between The Natural History Museum and a Las Vegas showgirl, Hevel's exhibit is like nothing you've seen before. And, as Paris Hilton* would say, that's hot.
*Hevel also has a Paris Hilton sculpture that was unfortunately damaged and not in the show.
David Hevel: Fierce runs through October 14, 2006 at Heather Marx Gallery, 77 Geary Street, Second Floor in San Francisco.