Guest post by artist Aaron Dysart:
Karl Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) towered like an odd cathedral in the cornfield — it’s fitting that a pilgrimage was required to view the work. Reversing the historical course of a serf’s travel to the city for the sake of a sacred spectacle, this required a journey, leaving the urban behind for the rural, for renewal. The Ruminant was made for the Farm D-tour — on view as part of The Wormfarm Institute’s Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, Wisconsin from October 4 to 13. Unnasch’s monumental piece mashes up the histories of stained glass, comic books and farm machinery to create a funny, expansive re-telling of the harvest narrative.
Stained glass calls to mind houses of worship, often depicting saints and martyrs alongside the instruments of their torture and execution. Without sacrificing a reverence for that material, The Ruminant swaps in comic book references, both familiar and obscure, for those heroes of Christianity. Batman takes a knee while tending to a cabbage patch under a victory garden sign; another panel features little known comic hero Tony Chu, an FDA agent who empathically understands the whole life of things he eats. In turning saints to superheroes, Unnasch shows us the echoes connecting them, recalling Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces.
Smaller stained panels are placed on the head of the combine, the section of machine that reaps the corn and funnels ears into the machine. These panels each contain a central image of a hand tool, a nod to what the modern combine has replaced. Indeed, harvest time is inextricable from death, whether plant or animal: one organism survives by killing, and eating, another. Unnasch’s hand-tools aren’t just nostalgic images, they bring a measure of honesty to his representation of the reaping. The sharp angles of the panels, not to mention the sharp blades of the tools, highlight a sinister undercurrent to the machine’s operations referencing the savage foundation of our seasonal bounty.
There are such subtle story-lines throughout the piece. On the right side of the cab are a series of images: the first panel features a small image of a termite; the middle panel depicts a child eating crayons, and the last (at the front of the cab) shows a mustached man eating an ear of corn. Decoded: the termite “harvests” as it eats its surroundings; a small child mouths things as a way to understand and explore; and, after tens of thousands of years, humans finally figured out how to effectively combine the two impulses in the act of tending crops. Read from left to right the series gets further and further from direct interaction with one’s surroundings. More intriguing, when read from right to left the viewer gets more and more uncomfortable as it transitions from a normal meal, to a parent’s concern of germs, ending in the disgust that insects bring.
On the body of the harvester, there are images of vegetables with witty sayings and puns. The background of these panels, with their flowing arcs of color, add a sense of motion to the static machine and the little vignettes serve to propel the viewer around the work, but these one-off panels never quite rise above kitsch. They certainly don’t operate at the same level as the artist’s more complex layered sequences of narrative panels at the sides and front.
Nit-picking aside, the gleeful mixing of material and cultural references in Unnasch’s The Ruminant (The Grand Masticator) adds up to something gloriously unexpected — work that at once respects and stretches its appropriated references and their attendant histories.
The spectacle of the piece — and the pilgrimage necessary to see it — was disarming and effective. As viewers drove up, they had to stop and disembark from their cars, they had to leave the asphalt of the city behind and step onto the field to see the work.
About the author
Aaron Dysart is a sculptor who seeks to understand his place as an animal in the natural system. He currently lives and works in Northeast Minneapolis and is an adjunct professor at Anoka Ramsey Community College.
Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)