When one thinks of roadkill, they often think of a poor animal lying on it’s side, off to the side of the road, stiff with rigor mortis as it is driven by in the flash of an eye. As the passerby scrunches up their eyes squeamishly, they care not to think of it any longer. One does not think of it as a symbol of artistic creation, however artist and painter Cara DeAngelis will change your mind.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Cara and learn how our relationship with wild life is quite disconnected and what it represents to us, both in the past and in the present, which she articulates through her paintings.
Laid Table with Roadkill
When did you realize you wanted to study the arts?
I was in high school. It was a wonderfully self-indulgent moment during the yearly expo where all the artsy students display their work and win prizes like “Most Creative” and “Best Drawing”. I was a sophomore and was looking through the hall and thought to myself “This is awesome. And I could be so much better”. Not my most humble moment. And ever since I’ve pretty much flipped between unstable thoughts of how terrible I am to what a genius I am, like every other artist.
What inspired you growing up?
Disney movies, Russian Orthodoxy and its strictness and weirdness, Russian icons, fairy tales, the creepy copy of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” that hung in our dining room… and horses and shipwrecks. I was also very into Victorian culture, environmentalism and finally feminism.
You state you grew up in “undomesticated” Connecticut. Please explain. Did your family prefer to lead a quieter, earthy life?
I actually just grew up in a very nice suburb in Southern CT, about an hour from NYC. What can one say about that, other than be tongue-in-cheek? Connecticut is so very domestic that calling it undomesticated and wild is funny to me.
Do you remember the moment you connected what you saw in Connecticut growing up and the artistic representation of it you create today? Describe how this came about.
Living in CT did directly affect the work I produce now. Roadkill is a huge phenomenon across the United States and is extremely common in CT, where deer are rampant and overpopulated, and there is the ever-expansion of roads and highways that dislocate certain species continuously. The most recent now being mountain lion sightings across the state. When I got my drivers license I developed a huge fear of ever running anything over. I realized I was basically driving a killing machine and have always tried to be careful— but I know accidents are inevitable.
I became obsessed and fascinated with the death I would see on the side of the roads. From the mysterious, detached legs of deer to the twitching squirrel, I hated looking, but also felt that I had to. One day, after a funeral –how appropriate– I stopped and picked up my first roadkill. Since then it’s just become bigger and bigger to the point that I collect several at a time, keep them in an extra freezer, and include more and more in each of my paintings.
Woman with Roadkill I
Your paintings have an “old world” quality to them, similar to still life paintings of the 1700’s. What led you to paint in this style?
I’m an art history nerd, and really enjoy appropriating from history, as well as drawing connections and creating dialogue between past and present times. When I started painting roadkill, I quickly realized many of these animals killed on the road were species that used to be ‘the kill’ in hunting sport. I began to see them as the modern kill, now that people don’t really hunt for their food. (At least not in CT!) Instead it’s done with cars by mistake, and the carcasses are never eaten or used for anything.
Wild life rarely enters our domestic space anymore, so I wanted to make a point of bringing them directly into my home and setting them up with all my “things” like the Flemish masters at one point did with their kill. But instead of the meat representing the Meal, prosperity, and life —as it did then– it can now only represent death. I began playing around with tropes common in the old paintings—hanging the carcass, using a stuffed swan instead of a real one, and displaying fruit or flowers. The dolls and porcelain figurines came about as a stand-in for human presence and innocence, as well as imbuing some humor into the paintings.
What was the initial reaction to your pieces when you presented them to the public?
Surprising acceptance and curiosity. I believe because the paintings aren’t shocking, and don’t go for shock value. I often get the comment that, since they’re painted so softly and beautifully, the viewer does not mind looking. This was exactly my tactic! There’s occasionally confusion at first as to what they’re looking at, specifically with the couple of portraits I’ve done of roadkill on bourgeoisie women’s laps. However, once they realize the animal is roadkill, and the painting is satirizing aristocratic portraiture of rich ladies with lap dogs on their knee, it clicks.
You state the road kill in your paintings represents our modern relationship with undomesticated animals and meat. Our modern relationship with animals as such is one of indifference. Besides bringing attention to this relationship, what do you hope the viewer takes away with them after viewing your paintings?
I guess to view roadkill in a different manner. To be conscious of the fact that it’s a growing problem in heavily people-populated areas, and to ponder their own relationship and interaction with wild life of any sort. I recently discovered the term “Post-Natural Age”, coined by Gary Snyder, in regards to where we are now as a Western culture. I think it’s a good term to think about! We really have entered a world that is post-natural, and it’s an increasing dilemma as to A) how far we can go and B) how to deal with the rest of the world that has not reached our post-natural status. And the creatures that have resisted against domestication clash the most with us in this age.
Do you eat meat?
Yes, I carry on the ancient tradition. However, I do not eat roadkill.
What is your favorite piece you have done and why?
My favorites tend to be whatever I’ve just finished, and then they quickly lose their place as I either make more work, or just realize that it was total crap after a few months, or years. But I think my favorite piece as of now is Dolls and Roadkill, because it was a bit of a turning point in my work, and it manages to have a good balance between tragedy, humor and a strong cultural context.
What was your inspiration for Dolls and Roadkill?
Besides the roadkill, which is the spark behind this whole series, and an obsession of mine, another huge inspiration is 17th century Flemish still life. Specifically hunting still lives of Frans Snyders and Jan Fyt. The story of Diana the huntress, and the idea of “femininity” itself are other inspirations. What it means to be a girl, and to go through puberty, get your period. The connection girls and women seem to have with animals, and the protective stance we often take, that seems to be less common in men and boys.
Dolls and Roadkill
Can you tell us the significance of the Blue Ribbon? You use it in more than one painting.
The ribbons happened pretty much accidentally, or naturally. Two other artists who use them occasionally inspired me, I think. They are fantastic compositional tools! They tie my compositions together, and are a symbol of femininity, adornment, and bondage.
Who are your favorite artists?
Flemish and Dutch old masters, like Snyders and Van Aelst. Many of the Mannerists specifically Bronzino and Parmagianino. Other favorites include the entire entourage of Renaissance gentleman, as well as many of the Modernists. I love Matisse—and he pops up in my paintings occasionally.
Contemporary artists I am inspired by include Jenny Saville, Margaret Bowland, Vincent Desiderio and Julie Heffernan. I love the new-school figurative painters. I predict a resurgence of figurative painting in the near future. Anything considered un-cool and out of style always comes back with a vengeance. I also love Lowbrow work by artists like Camille Rose Garcia and Liz McGrath.
Tell us something about yourself that no one really knows?
I guess only a few people know that I still sleep with a teddy bear. Hopefully I will not regret that being on the internet!
What is on the horizon for you? What are you working on now? Also…are there any galleries that currently hold your artwork and do you plan to exhibit in the future?
I’m continuing to work on the roadkill stuff. I keep trying to find a successful way of including both humans and animals in my compositions— also live animals in with the dead ones, so that’s what I’m investigating right now. And they will be either really epic or really terrible.
As for galleries, I’m in contact with a couple, but I don’t feel like I need to have a gallery just yet. Right now I’m truthfully more interested in exhibiting the work and talking to others about it, rather than selling it in a gallery. Showing it and talking about it is the best part of being an artist! So I’ve been doing a lot of group shows, and am working on a solo show next yer. I’m also in the process of curating a show about Wildlife in the domestic space, with artists from all over America participating. If it happens, it’s going to create some really fantastic conversation, and I’ll be so thrilled to have such a large, nationwide dialogue going on. Plus, there will be roadkill involved.
You can visit the website of Cara DeAngelis to see more of her work.