Animals occupy an ambivalent position in contemporary Western culture as we pet, farm, abuse and ignore them. They were also somewhat displaced in early 20th-century art, when, during the Modernist 'programme', they were seen to represent sentimentalism and retrogressive subject matter. During the 1960s real animals - dead and alive - were reintroduced, successfully dismembered from 19th-century connotations of illustrative piety; for instance, Robert Rauschenberg's stuffed goat, Janis Kounellis' tethered horses and Joseph Beuys' coyote. In contemporary work animals have a free rein and artists can use their figurative image with alacrity.
Edwina Ashton's videos reaffirm the specificity of each individual animal rather than representing them as archetypes, as wildlife painters do. In her recent show 'Excusez-moi' she represents them as humans in animal costumes, or as naive approximations with pantomime tendencies. Rather than depicting a creature in its natural form and environment, Ashton propels it into her own, very human, realm. The subject of Moth (all works 2002) is a person sitting on a windowsill, dressed in a ludicrous moth costume, while a voice-over reads from an archaic, educative text for lepidopterists. With an agenda that is ultimately anthropocentric, the narration expounds points of interest, such as 'blue in moths is exceedingly rare', and outlines how to kill insects while retaining the vibrancy of their colours. In a truly Victorian manner wildlife has been reduced to a list of empirical data, yet the gross presence of the oversized and anatomically inaccurate moth neatly transforms this pomposity into pathos.
In Maybe I'm Short-sighted a caterpillar squirming around on a sofa is anomalous on many counts: the insect is badly configured at the wrong scale while the human moves clumsily inside the restrictive suit. Insects are generally the size that they are out of necessity - their circulatory and respiratory systems would cease to function if their surface area to mass ratio were different - so by scaling an insect up to human size Ashton creates a physical impossibility. She compounds the surreal burlesque by endowing her monsters with speech and placing them in mundane situations. As the caterpillar/human struggles with the fact of its physical being, a voice tells us, in the first person, of a farcical trip to the optician. The ensuing absurdist dialogue groans with bad gags and twisting contradictions as the human and animal worlds writhe uncomfortably together.
We're All Busy People Here shows a bizarre hybrid creature - possibly a frog, an otter or a duck-billed mammal - drumming its fingers, fiddling with a ruler and playing with the zip that seals its lips. The anthropomorphism insinuates that perhaps the animal kingdom is also capable of experiencing the existential void or, if that's taking it too far, at least the ennui of an unstimulating life.
In contrast to the videos, a scattered hang of drawings and paintings on paper make up two slightly more sober series of works made during a visit to Switzerland. Perhaps the erratic arrangement is an attempt to mirror the fragmentary nature of the travelogue or to undermine the narrative links that creep into a figurative series, but it also serves to corrupt the intimacy of the individual drawings. They each represent a moment in Ashton's expanding vocabulary of exquisite modes of representation and, as with the rhetoric form, a finely turned progression is perhaps preferable to a disjointed smattering.
The subjects of the sketches and studies - parrots, dogs, bears, mushrooms or small groups of people - are all isolated in their pictorial space, surrounded by bitter-sweet pen marks and colour washes, or simply the desolation of the empty page. Watercolours of St Bernards are heroically framed, with the dogs staring off into the middle distance; a couple drinking wine are partially obscured by coffee rings faked with brown paint; in another they have exaggerated teeth. A squirrel sports a blooming, bushy tail that fills the page, boys muck about on bikes, a cat plays a fiddle and figures in national dress oscillate on the page in felt-tip, biro or whatever seems to have been at hand. This contemplation of the stranded individual perhaps provides a link with Ashton's video pieces, in that they both focus on the physical and psychological isolation of the human and animal condition. Yet there is a contradiction between the two approaches: whereas the videos focus on an albeit fictitious individual, the paintings and drawings refer to a type.