Nature versus nurture: Artists Allyson Mellberg and Jeremy Taylor examine coexistence

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“What I Thought” by Allyson Mellberg is part of the collaborative exhibition “Hareball” at The Honeycomb. Courtesy of the artist. “What I Thought” by Allyson Mellberg is part of the collaborative exhibition “Hareball” at The Honeycomb. Courtesy of the artist.

Allyson Mellberg and Jeremy Taylor are not only two of the best contemporary artists in Charlottesville—or anywhere else, for that matter—they’re also two of the sweetest and most thoughtful people you could meet. Their work draws from nature, cartooning, modern art, and the contemporary craft movement, and their carefully composed drawings, paintings, prints, and soft-sculptures depict a conflict between the natural world and the man-made. “Hareball,” is their most recent collaborative show.

Mellberg’s easily recognizable work is usually centered around drawings of androgynous, tomboy-ish girls; in “Hareball” they can be seen drowning in their own hair, with small mammals clinging to their faces, or vomiting mouthfuls of earthworms. Posed like portraits, they seem both blasé and somehow coy, despite their gross afflictions.

Taylor’s work is less stylistically consistent, occasionally incorporating geometrical patterns or a more cartoonish line, but much of his work draws from, and subverts, the history of natural illustration. In Taylor’s paintings and prints, deer, rabbits, and seabirds are involved in a range of violent or disturbing scenarios. A deer anxiously paws at its antlers with a hind leg, trying to dislodge clumps of honey. A pelican opens its beak to reveal a rotting human face. A realistically drawn deer is decapitated, and has a cartoon cloud emerging from its’ neck-stump.

Their larger subject is the natural world and the violence done to it by humans, but they avoid the bombastic tone of political or propagandistic imagery, opting for a more subtle and poetic approach. The overall tone is dismay, or resigned disappointment, rather than terror or distress.

There’s a deadpan humor that comes from the juxtaposition, which is subtle but effective. And although occasionally a shopper looking for a cute animal-printed tote bag will turn away in revulsion after taking a closer look, there’s much more to their art than a facile or juvenile mash-up of cute animals and violent imagery. Their delicate sensibilities give equal weight to the handsome and the gruesome, with significant overlap.

“It’s not just irony,” Taylor said. “ Both of us try to be sincere, and sensitive. I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘Deer are cute, deer are hip right now, so I’m going to draw deer,’ but it’s also not just a one-liner, like ‘zombie-apocalypse deer.’ It’s more nuanced.”

“In Jeremy’s work, all of his animals are really dignified,” Mellberg said. “Their eyes are really human. You identify with them beyond just seeing them as animals. The reason Jeremy uses the animals that he’s using isn’t because they’re cute, it’s because those animals are prey.”

“There are a couple of pieces where nature is retaliating,” Taylor said. “There are animals eating people, animals having revenge. I’m interested in putting yourself in the position of nature. In some ways there’s a lot of humor in that—like, you’d never see a deer with a human’s leg hanging out of it’s mouth in reality. That one’s actually kind of a reference to Robert Gober, with the legs coming out of the walls—I think Robert Gober’s work is funny. It’s also peculiar. There’s a lot of different emotions in there.”

Working closely over the past decade, Mellberg and Taylor have developed personalized, intertwining, ever-evolving networks of iconography. They share and exchange motifs, including strange growths, dark clouds, thick sludge, coral, and fungus. Their styles inform each other’s work, and it can take even their most dedicated followers a while to learn to distinguish between their individual pieces.

“We met in ’02 in grad school at UNC in Chapel Hill,” Mellberg said, “and we started making work together halfway through our first year.”

“We got married pretty soon after that,” Taylor said, “so we had to make our wedding invitations together, and everything from that point forward has been collaborative. We both have our own solo exhibitions—she’s had a really stellar solo career, showing at places like Galerie LJ in Paris, and Cinder’s in New York.”

“Our two-person shows are my favorite shows,” Mellberg said. “I know his work, I love it, and to able to walk around in it, through it, with my work is really cool. And we get to do bigger projects by working together.”

Self-conscious about the paradox of using synthetic materials to depict the natural world, and wary of the health hazards and environmental effects of paints, emulsions, and solvents, they began making their own inks and dyes. “We started growing pigments in our garden. We’re learning how to process them,” Taylor said. “It takes time to iron out the details, to learn how to get the consistency right.”

“When we first started making art, we knew the materials were unhealthy, but we weren’t really aware of any alternatives,” Mellberg said. “That’s why we’re writing a book about sustainable and non-toxic art materials—not just for our own work, but we’re educators too.” Both are art instructors at James Madison University, and Taylor also teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Mellberg and Taylor’s homemade art supplies are available via their online Etsy shop, and their show “Hareball” is on display at The Honeycomb through the end of March.

Do you source art supplies from nature?  Post your answer below.

  • Beryl

    Allyson and Jeremy are wonderful artists! Thanks for reviewing this spectacular show!

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