Artist Todd Slaughter Fits Daunting Ideas into 'American Primitives'

Todd Slaughter doesn’t make the driving force behind his artistic endeavors especially easy to understand. And, actually, since he talks in pieces — individual art pieces — it can be rather difficult to perceive unless one is being both extremely observa

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Installations in 'American Primitives'
Installations in 'American Primitives'

Todd Slaughter doesn’t make the driving force behind his artistic endeavors especially easy to understand. And, actually, since he talks in pieces — individual art pieces — it can be rather difficult to perceive unless one is being both extremely observant and relatively obscure (also: intelligent). Which might be the point of the whole charade anyway.

While Slaughter’s official artist’s statement awaits curious eyes the Weston Art Gallery’s website (“[his] artwork has addressed the perception that safety is synonymous with isolation and privilege in the gated communities of suburbia and urban high-rises”), what he says about his show American Primitives, up now at the downtown gallery, is that it revolves around one of his works, “Walden Woods,” and the figures who inspired it — Henry David Thoreau (whose Walden gives the work its name) and American terrorist Eric Rudolph.

“This is actually kind of a pickup from when I was talking about generalized and collective symbols, sculpture about how we organize ourselves and isolate ourselves, and then I started talking about the domestic comfort,” Slaughter says. “I’m not sure where I connected Thoreau and Walden with this notion of individualism, but as I think now, why wouldn’t anybody?”

“Walden Woods,” a 10-by-6-foot cartoonish fabric tree installation, is just one of Slaughter’s 31 pieces in American Primitives, which fills both levels of the Weston’s gallery space within the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Complemented by nearby “Talking Turkeys,” a work of exactly that — two silicone automatons that chat when approached — “Walden Woods” implies a misplaced romantic perception of nature and American’s consequential misappropriation of Thoreau’s ideas about it.

“There is something kind of peculiar that Americans still think they’re particularly special, that it’s all for us, a type of manifest destiny thing,” Slaughter says. “So I guess you could say that the thesis for ‘Walden’ — and in a way, everything leading up to that — is this complexity of the American character, of individualism, and sometimes it tends to morph into this extreme, violent nature.”

The “woods” in the exhibit are slightly off-putting, inviting visitors in (literally, the hanging installation is large enough for a person to fit underneath) while simultaneously pushing them to feel somewhat uncomfortable. 

“People say it doesn’t look anything like woods, but it shouldn’t,” Slaughter says. “It’s cartoon.”

Then there’s the automated fowl.

“I thought, ‘Well, I kind of need to get into it a little more. I really want the narrative,’” Slaughter says. “[‘Walden Woods’] is not just an abstract idea. It’s fairly detailed and, my god, these [turkeys] are two narrators. They tell the story.”

One plays Thoreau and one plays Eric Rudolph — the American terrorist behind a series of anti-abortion and anti-gay bombings in the United States during the late 1990s — to exemplify a sort of in-your-face transformation from, and similarity to, transcendentalist and extremist dispositions.

“My wife, who wrote the [talking turkeys’] dialogue, is a writer, and she taught English in the prison system when we started dating,” Slaughter says. “She felt comfortable writing Rudolph in prison, and he wrote back.”

Rudolph admitted to closely identifying with Thoreau’s writings. Most interestingly to Slaughter, though, was that Rudolph noted on which motives he acted, giving Slaughter even more reason to consider individuals’ survival strategies in the natural world and within American society.

“To a greater degree, I thought that transcendentalism and the American character really were more bad than I think now. It feels much more complex, much more interwoven,” Slaughter says. “Rudolph is articulate.”

But he’s not the only one.

Through each work, Slaughter makes precise albeit complex points, speaking most clearly through his works that are carried out with myriad materials. And it seems nearly every type of material is employed here.

“I’m not really married to particular materials,” he says. “That question always comes up because I do use a lot of materials, I guess more than most, and I’m not trained as a sculptor. I’m trained as a product designer.”

Included in the show are the polycarbonate houses of “Domestic Fortress,” carved foam in “These Guys Know” and a paper fox of “Romance with an American Loner,” among many others. Essentially, all the pieces necessary for individualized understandings.

“I’m in no fear of saying anything people don’t already think anyway,” Slaughter says, “but maybe I’m articulating it a little bit more completely.”


AMERICAN PRIMITIVES in on display at Weston Art Gallery (650 Walnut St., Downtown) through Aug. 24. More info: westonartgallery.com.


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