I learned several disturbing factoids when studying the work of multimedia artist Keith Bentley. First, there is actually an entire industry called “horse rendering” that turns dead and dying horses into by-products – skins, feed, glue, hair. Some argue that it is more ecologically friendly to reuse a dead animal than it is to incinerate it (which requires a huge amount of fuel and crating). But of course there is a dark side to this industry. Many old or lame horses are taken to these plants while still alive to be slaughtered.
Bentley wanted to create a lasting tribute to 250 horses that were slaughtered at one unnamed plant by incorporating two artistic traditions from Victorian England – the art of the veil and the little known craft of “hair art.”
If you were a Victorian-era widow, mourning was taken very, very seriously. Some traditions called for women to wear long black veils that entirely covered the face for a year or longer. During the same period, there also existed a tradition for tufting and weaving mementos out of animal and even human hair (kind of like the crushed velvet paintings of the day). Bentley weaves together the two Victorian traditions but with a thoroughly Rauschenberg-inspired spin.
Found objects are repurposed to become the bodies on which fall long veil-like plumes of iridescent black horse hair. Bentley created a series of such fabrications, one of which was recently featured in a group show at the New York Museum of Arts and Design called “Dead or Alive.” A taxidermied dog is given a full-body mourning veil of black hair, a curious collision of symbols that at once evokes the idea of “man’s best friend” and the notion that animals themselves can mourn.
The whole taxidermy-as-art trend, I have to confess, is growing a little tiresome. There is scarcely an art student who hasn’t gone scrounging for road kill to present at a midterm jury. But Keith Bentley elevates the medium by assembling a collection of other found objects, all of which receive a similar treatment.
A tire sprouts a full mane of black hair making a vague reference to the act of road kill. A punching bag becomes animalistic, almost daring the viewer to strike the mysterious and vulnerable creature that floats before him. Bright yellow air filters trap tails of black hair, forming a zen-like gateway to the world beyond.
Bentley’s genius is not contrived. You can feel his own mourning lovingly installed in these strange objects. And with their brave simplicity, his creations provide an invitation to contemplate death and our bizarre relationship with the natural world in a new way -- an invitation not just for us normal humans but also for the flock of taxidermy-crazed young artists who will almost certainly attempt to copy him.
See more work by Kevin Bentley at the Saatchi & Saatchi online gallery.