While some may fear insects, Jennifer Angus finds beauty and art in them. A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jennifer Angus prefers to describe herself as an installation artist. She is best known for using insects in order to create ornamental patterns with intricate details; all the while utilizing the Victorian era for inspiration.
As an artist, Jennifer Angus hopes to evoke different thoughts in her viewers, and is working to spark a conversation about insects as a whole. Her exotic take on art is to be admired and appreciated, for the designs she creates are stories of their own.
With such a contrastive take on patterns and design, we were thrilled to hear about Jennifer Angus’ way of creation.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE?
I would describe myself as an installation artist. I’m interested in creating environments that transport the viewer to another place, and another time. I want to provide the viewer with an opportunity to think about things they have never thought of before, particularly the importance of insects to our environment.
My work takes inspiration from the Victorian era, as it was a time of great collecting. For the insatiable Victorian collector, nothing was sacrosanct. The attention to intricate detail as well as the sheer number of insects comprising the work, is often overwhelming to viewers. The result is a kind of Victorian fancy, as they are over-the-top environments in which the evidence of “horror vacui” (fear of empty space) is in full display.
TELLS US ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS
When I start planning a new exhibition, the first thing I consider is whether the space has a history that suggests something to me. A lot of museums are former mansions/villas that have been converted to galleries. They come with wonderful histories and stories, so sometimes I want to try to use insects that will evoke a former time or art style. However, I sometimes have a modern gallery that is simply a white box.
That’s alright, though, because my goal with every show is to learn something new so that I can explore it further in the next show. It may be a small thing, such as the way a cicada with clear and black wings disappears into the wall and looks more like a graceful line of calligraphy. And sometimes, I don’t have these luxuries because I have 3 exhibitions up and I only have certain insects left to work with! I actually like this because it becomes an interesting design challenge.
I always work with the gallery floor plan. I have a picture of each insect to scale on my computer and in Photoshop I am able to work out my design. The physical installation typically takes a week to ten days depending on the scale, complexity, and how much help I have.
WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN INSPIRATIONS AND REFERENCES?
As I mentioned already, I take a lot of inspiration from the Victorian era. It was a time of adventure, travel, and the establishment of natural history museums. I also play with the discomfort most people feel for insects. When viewers enter one of my installations, they are greeted with something they think they know, that is, a patterned wallpaper which could be in anyone’s home. However, upon closer examination, one discovers that it is entirely made up of insects.
A tension is created by the beauty one observes in the pattern and the apprehension we feel towards insects. I know very few people who welcome insects into their home. In fact, we have a certain hysteria about them. Culturally, insects are a sign of dirtiness and disease. My work explores ideas of home and comfort. It alludes to the unseen world of dust mites, germs and bacteria, both friendly and not.
I’m also interested in educating people about insects. The fear we have of insects is generally unwarranted. Their role in the environment is vital, whether it be in the pollination of flowers that, in turn produce the fruits we so enjoy, or the decomposition of matter. They don’t deserve a blast of “Raid” or a beating with a flyswatter.
IF YOU HAD TO PICK: YOUR LOVE OF ART, OR YOUR LOVE OF INSECTS?
I really don’t know how to separate these two things. They are of equal importance. I am an artist, but I am a human being too. Without insects, human beings can’t survive. It’s that simple.
MANY PEOPLE WONDER WHERE YOU GET SO MANY INSECTS, AND WHAT KINDS THEY ARE?
The insects are purchased from specimen dealers, although these days I only work with one dealer, Alain van Vyve, a Belgian who lives in France. We have worked together for many years and he knows the types of insects I like, while also understanding that I need a lot more than the average collector.
Most of the insects are from Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Thailand) but there are a few African (Madagascar) and South American (French Guyana) species. The insects fall into a few of families — cicadas, grasshoppers, beetles, and phasmids (leaf mimic). I don’t use any butterflies or moths because they are too delicate. I reuse and reuse the insects they have to stand up to the wear and tear of multiple exhibitions.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO EVOKE WHEN PEOPLE SEE YOUR INSTALLATIONS?
Most importantly, I want people to have a sense of wonder, a “wow!” moment. I want them to say “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I hope that people will marvel at the beauty of not just my work, but of Mother Nature’s ingenuity.
WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU HOPE TO SEND?
There is often confusion as to whether the insects in my work are real. Yes, they are although they are dead and dried. While none of these species are endangered, it is important to note that their habitat is under assault. Unsurprisingly, forests play second fiddle to human demands for agriculture and urbanization. Intellectually, we recognize that forests are the lungs of the planet, but not enough is being done to protect this precious resource. Virtually every insect on the endangered species list is their because of loss of habitat.
Many people who visit my exhibitions were never aware that such unusual insects exist. I hope that my exhibition will get them excited, and perhaps they will be motivated to get involved with one of the many rain forest preservation projects out there. I would also like people to think about their own environment and behavior. How is urban and suburban encroachment affecting wildlife, big and small within your neighborhood? It is easy to take up the case of larger mammals, birds and fish, but what about smaller creatures who have an important role in the ecosystem to play, be it pollinating flowers or helping in the decomposition of various matter?
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE SMITHSONIAN’S INSTALLATION?
Of course it was a fantastic experience to be on both a national and international stage. I think everyone was surprised by how many people came to the show. Initially, they expected 200,000 people over the 6 month exhibition period, but in fact 500,000 attended the show. That is amazing!
One of the fun things about this exhibition for me was using an insect that actually plays an important role in the food and cosmetics industries. Cochineal is a type of scale insect (as is lice), found in Latin America from which a common food colorant is derived. For my installation at the Renwick, I used cochineal extract to paint the gallery walls a reddish/magenta color. Given my background in textile design, I have frequently used cochineal to dye fabric, but this is the first time I have used it to color walls. Cochineal was originally one of the most important dyes in the world, generating colors that range from orange to deep red to purple. The insect feeds on the Nopal Cactucs and nowadays, it is production farmed.
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH PATTERN DESIGNS?
My early training was in textile design and, in fact, that’s what I teach at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Although very little of what I currently do involves cloth, my work is nonetheless transformed by the textile tradition. While I may be best known for working with insects, my work is dependent upon the supposition that there is a cultural understanding of pattern. Without a written word, pattern upon cloth can communicate about its wearer, whether it be sex, age, ethnic identity or status within a community. Pattern is a sophisticated and perhaps underrated communication system. The scale and the type of pattern, e.g. polka-dots, camouflage, whether worn, or applied to a wall, make a statement.
For the installation at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the pattern’s central motifs are skulls, composed of hundreds of weevils and small beetles. Throughout history, the skull image has been a universal symbol of man’s mortality. It can be found on tombstones, warning labels, biker jackets, t-shirts, and emblazed in rhinestones on high fashion garments. The image implies a kind of edginess, rebellion, danger and devil may care attitude. Given that my work requires hundreds of specimens, it seems highly appropriate to reference a charged symbol associated with death. Yet ultimately, I am referencing a man’s fragility or ephemeral state on this planet.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
I have two upcoming exhibitions. The first is at Emory and Henry College in Virginia, and the second is at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I’ll also be doing a three month residency at MadArt in Seattle beginning next May, so I’m quite busy!
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE FOLLOWING YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
My best advice is to develop thick skin. Art is subjective and not everyone is going to like what you are doing. Success rarely comes overnight, so you have to love what you’re doing. Be true to yourself and your vision. Work hard.
We would like to thank Jennifer Angus for sharing a glimpse of her life with us, and wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.
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