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Esther Neisen's Beautiful Creatures at Canisius College


Esther Neisen’s work on exhibit at the Canisius College art gallery consists of oversize images of insects and such creatures meticulously constructed of bits and pieces of reclaimed film, photo negatives, and found materials, handsomely displayed on light boxes. The title of the exhibit is Duplicity, and a brief statement as to the artist’s intention with the works is “to express interpersonal familial relationships, social anxieties, and aggressions.”

What interpersonal relationships, social anxieties, and aggressions she is referring to in particular isn’t clear to the casual observer. What we get instead are several variations on the general thematic of the affection/aggression dichotomy. We see creatures whose precise anatomies we have to strain to decipher, and finally realize the reason the anatomy is unclear is that there are two anatomies (in each piece) to try to untangle. Each bug piece presents two bugs locked in what might be amorous embrace, or one bug making a meal of the other. (There are no praying mantises here that I can make out, but you can’t help thinking of the praying mantis, reputed to combine the two functions in one grand occasion.) Or something in-between.

One piece looks at first like a love session, but then we realize these are different species, in fact different classes of bugs. On the bottom a hapless insect—six legs—on top a spider—eight legs, eight eyes—settling down to a feast.

Another shows a crab-like creature (as magnified a few hundred times or so) composed in part of just-decipherable bits of photo imagery—a portrait of Ben Franklin, some electrical power systems references—whereupon you make out another creature crawling on the crab creature’s back, that could be a ladybug, except in black and white instead of red and black. But if so, a benign enough apposition of species, it would seem, given the ladybug’s harmless and beneficial image. (Unless the crab bug is an aphid, because ladybugs eat aphids. Later, I looked up a picture of an aphid on Wikipedia, and it’s possible.)

Another piece that seems the most deeply ambiguous of the lot shows sufficient body parts and tangle of limbs to suggest two insects, but only one distinctly recognizable whole animal, complete with head and torso. Apparently an ant, that after some looking appears to be carrying on its back, for proper disposal rites, a torso and wildly askew legs—but maybe not all of them—of a brother ant, probably killed in battle and decapitated.

But what a visually attractive medium, photo film against a light box. Even the dullest solid colors—off-khaki greens and browns—looking brilliant in their translucency, and in contrast to the surrounding pure white light. And in the intriguing quality of the captured images on the film bits, and sense of the artist’s imaginative and painstaking structuring of the overall images. Very beautiful work, about duplicity in the sense of multiplicity and ambiguity, ambivalence. About personal relationships, social anxieties, love/hate.

The Esther Neisen exhibit continues through January 10.

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