Madison art enthusiasts currently have a chance to get a double dose of Jennifer Angus' remarkable work. In addition to her prominently sited work in the Wisconsin Triennial, Angus' installation "Silver Wings and Golden Scales" is on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through June 24.
Working as she does with pattern and with insects - things all of us encounter in our daily lives - Angus creates work that is instantly accessible even as it ultimately reveals deeper meanings. "Pattern is a sophisticated, wordless language which we understand regardless of learning or awareness," she says.
No matter one's culture - we are all trained to draw meaning from the patterns around us. Recalling her research and travel in Southeast Asia, Angus says, "Some ethnic minorities telegraph their identity through patterns on clothing," with designs that can convey everything from marital status to the wearer's pregnancy.
A native of Canada who moved to Wisconsin in 2001 to accept a professorship at the UW, Angus melds her love of pattern with an interest in Victorian science and collecting. Yet there is also a touch of whimsy to her approach: "I'm interested in the Victorian era and that enthusiasm for science, but also the juxtaposition of science and people, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in fairies."
Typical of her work, both the Chazen and Triennial pieces are site-specific installations, which the artist installs with the help of her four assistants, graduate art students at the UW. "I can't just ship my art to a venue. It's more akin to a theatrical performance," she says.
The Chazen installation is complemented by a multilayered soundtrack by Scottish composer Alistair MacDonald. Cycling over roughly two hours, the sound piece includes insect noises, a voice reading the journal of a Victorian-era collector, a poem about insects, and music boxes.
Despite their brilliant colors and sometimes fantastical shapes, all of the insects Angus uses are real. None are endangered, and Angus reuses them from show to show. While some people find her materials simply creepy, others worry about the environmental implications. "The negative reactions are almost always the same, from those well-meaning people who are concerned about the effect on the insect population," she says. "That delights me, actually, because it means those people are thinking. [As an artist] I'm in a privileged position to be able to say something about the environment."
Angus respects the integrity of her once-living materials. Before being able to use the insects in her art, she must rehydrate the dried specimens. "The bugs are very individual. I'll be putting a weevil on the wall [during an installation], and I'll be like, 'I remember you!'"