The night before Kendall Mingey’s MFA thesis exhibition opened, she was thinking about a hole in the floor. The hole, about an inch in diameter, was below a grid of 16 digital prints called “Highway 93” that portray deer in quirky and horrific contortions. None of the deer, bent into unnatural shapes by violent death, confront the viewer. They just lie as they were left by whatever vehicle struck them, lifeless but unbloodied.
Once Mingey became obsessed by the hole in the floor, it was only a matter of time before it became art. Taking inspiration from an unlikely object—something Mingey often does—she spent the night after she installed her work in the gallery crafting the hindquarters of a deer from sculpting putty. The “bottomless hole,” as Mingey calls it, that occupied her mind is now plugged with what looks a deer, perhaps still alive, attempting to wriggle itself through to the floor below.
While work including this much death is macabre, the morbidity seems incidental to Mingey’s central efforts. Whimsy drives her artistic vision, she says, and she’s indifferent about whether the result engages or unsettles.
In fact, sometimes her work blends the two. A roadkilled raptor whose wing flapped in the wind of passing vehicles prompted Mingey to sculpt a 5-foot wing from rice paper and plastic; when a breeze moves through the gallery where it resides, the wing rustles gently.
“Everybody touches the wing,” says Mingey, who is completing coursework at the University of Montana that has focused mostly on sculpture. “It looks like candy.”
Mingey premises “AΩ,” an iron sculpture that wraps around the corner of a gallery wall, on the shelf where it rests. An iron rabbit no bigger than a thumb looks into open space beyond the sculpture, its back turned to the similarly miniature snub-nosed predator creeping up and preparing to pounce. Mingey made the sculpture after being presented with a crown corner, a piece of molding that fits into the ceiling space where two walls meet, which prompted her to think, “If you put two things on a corner with each other, they can’t quite see each other.” Flipping the corner piece so it projects from the wall rather than nestling in a niche, Mingey creates a space concerned with, she says, “rounding a corner as death and transition. The rabbit being life for what’s hunting it and the thing that’s hunting it being death for the rabbit.”
While Mingey’s work doesn’t shrink from death, other pieces in her exhibition prance toward the fanciful, as with the playful sentiment enlivening “Ta-da!” In the piece, a painstakingly rendered elk about 4 inches tall perches on two toes, one front and one rear leg kicked out nearly parallel to the flowered mound of earth on which the statue is positioned. Mingey created the elk after discovering a small table at a flea market.
“It’s a funny little useless table,” says Mingey, “and it’s a silly table so I wanted to put something that’s kind of lighthearted on it and I had this image of an elk showing off and being carefree.”
Mingey’s approach to inspiration may be impulsive, but implementing her ideas demands rigid methodology. Casting sculpture requires carving items from wax or clay and then forming sand molds to accommodate the pouring of molten bronze or iron into the shape of the sculpture. Once cooled, the hardened sand must be broken away from the metal, which then needs to be polished and finished. Mingey says her work is “process-y to the point of just being What are you doing to yourself? But it’s therapeutic for me…You do the steps, you get what you want.”
Even if what she wants seems near impossible. For an installation displayed in the Masquer Theatre for a week in March, Mingey crafted a life-size iron deer.
“I realized there’s a reason people make something that big with a team of assistants,” she says in regards to the mammoth undertaking.
The large deer was situated in the foreground of a scene where smaller deer statues moved up the switchbacks of a steep slope Mingey built and placed in the background of the installation. Apparently the same size as the one in the foreground but reduced by distance, the distant deer climb to the top of the slope, a point from which they throw themselves onto rocks below, where several broken bodies lie on the rocks.
“I don’t know if I’d undertake something that big and complicated in iron again” says Mingey, who next plans to take an iron-working internship in Colebrookdale, England. “But who knows. I’ll probably wait two years and have another ridiculous idea.”
Kendall Mingey’s Small Time is on display in UM’s Gallery of Visual Arts, located in the Social Science building, as part of the MFA Thesis Exhibition, which runs through Friday, May 11. Call 243-2813.