Sistering the Brothers Grimm
Austin-born artist Natalie Frank makes fables viscerally visual in her exhibition at the Blanton
In the old times, but not so very long ago as the graying hippies dream, there lived in the heart of Austin a young woman given to traveling, who would one day return to visit this land of her birth and bring with her the fruits of much artistic labor to fever the imagination of vision-hungry citizens.
Selections from Natalie Frank's newest series of artworks currently fill several upstairs rooms in the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. Organized by the Drawing Center in New York, the exhibit features more than 30 original pieces inspired by tales from the Brothers Grimm, illustrating the liminal zones that cleave those ancient narratives to and from the artist's own fervid mentality.
Frank, born in our Texas capital in 1980 and currently based in that Biggest of Apples, set aside the oil paints with which she's created an impressive body of work and a thriving career, set them aside to render these storied images with only gouache and chalk pastels. That's hardly a limitation when wielded by an artist of Frank's skill, though – the works here like a choreographed explosion of colors and figurative forms. These are drawings with a palette like guts ripped from a debauched rainbow. These are works that strike the eye and mind with a combination of beauty, narrative, and graphic violence like a novadose of pure mescaline.
Just so. Because these are not the more familiar, defanged, and mostly bloodless versions of childhood tales that Frank has conjured to ocular proof; these are evocations of the grisly, gruesome tales collected and presented by the Brothers Grimm, further informed by even earlier and gnarlier versions, by the oral traditions from which the brothers drew their celebrated volumes.
This is an exhibition like a controlled substance, brothers and sisters, and we recently talked with the person who makes the stuff.
Austin Chronicle: Had you been familiar with the Grimms' stories before, beyond the pop-culture Disney iterations?
Natalie Frank: A little bit. Throughout my life, I'd read some of the stories in different forms, both edited and, um, unsanitized? But I'd never sat down and read all 211 of them, so that was certainly the first time for that – and the first time to read many of the stories, and to learn about the unsanitized females.
AC: The Grimms' tales and other folklore traditions seem to be getting a lot of attention and creative treatment lately. Do you think there's something about the increasingly technological environment that we live in that promotes a yearning toward more primitive narratives like that?
NF: What's so great about the Grimms' tales is that they began centuries ago, but they're the same basic stories that resonate through contemporary literature and music and art. They're epic tales, even though some are moralistic and specific to the 19th century, and I think they resonate because they're these allegorical stories that are relevant to our time. In terms of the proliferation of the Grimms – there are TV shows and operas and plays, everyone seems to have gone Grimm crazy – I don't know what that's about, other than that maybe it started with Harry Potter. And as the world becomes a more frightening place, maybe people turn inward, toward fantasy – maybe it has something to do with that.
AC: Out of all these Grimm fables you've read, do you have particular favorites?
NF: I do. I really liked "Briar Rose," which is otherwise known as "Sleeping Beauty." Which, in the original – not in the Grimms', but in the original, 13th century version – the woman is in a coma and is raped and becomes pregnant and awakens when the child that she birthed while in the coma, she awakens when that child is breastfeeding. You can feel the roots of that violence in the Grimms' story, and I like sensing that history. And I like the way the Grimms represented life as it was in the 19th century for men and women, and that these were realities at the time.
I also really loved "Little Red Cap," which is "Little Red Riding Hood." Again, not in the Grimms', but in the original, where Little Red Riding Hood performs a striptease for the wolf and burns her clothes as she performs the striptease and then gets into bed with the wolf. And, in the Grimms', it's much more humorous than I think people remember that story. When the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and Grandma, it's described with the arms and legs coming out of every orifice of the wolf and describes the wolf in Grandma's clothing almost like a cross-dresser in bed. I really like those details.
AC: You've stated in an earlier interview that "There's plenty of room out there for updating classics from a feminist and humorous perspective." If we didn't know before, we know from the all-powerful Internet that there are idiots out there who would say, "Well, feminist and humorous, you can't have both at the same time." What's your take on an opinion like that?
NF: It's an opinion that's so ignorant that it needs to go out in the world and shake the hand of a woman.
AC: Do you have an idea of what sort of subjects you'll explore once you say goodbye to the Grimms? I mean, at least briefly say goodbye to the Grimms?
NF: Yeah, I'm not gonna revisit Grimm – in drawing or in any form – because that's the end of this project. But I'm going to be doing a show with ACME [art gallery] in Los Angeles in May. And then I'll have some work at the ADAA [Art Dealers Association of America] Fair in New York. And I'm starting to work on another book, too. It's by a fairy-tale scholar, and it'll be based on another group of translations of tales – not fairy tales, but tales. We're currently submitting the drawings and the translations, so we should know more in the fall. I'd love to do more books, it's a great experience.
AC: Is there a chance that you'll ever do a project where your artwork – in most of its complexity, at least – would be animated to some extent?
NF: I would love to. I'm open to so many different media. What I'd really love to do next, beyond more books, is set design and costume design for a ballet or an opera. There's been such a great history of fine artists working in that realm, I think it'd be really incredible. And the idea of making these comprehensive environments – which I tried to do with the Grimms and I try to do with my paintings, as well – it's what I love about some of my favorite artists, so many artists who've done set design. Like Robert Wilson, and Hockney, and Rauschenberg, and Johns, and – you name it.
AC: When people look at art, of course they have their own perceptions and their own ideas of what's going on – whether the artist agrees with it or not. What would you like somebody to take away from your artwork of the Grimms' fables?
NF: I think, for me, that's the crux of this work: just what you asked. And my answer would be, with these stories and the drawings, I hope they're perceived as the relationships between people, their interactions, and how sometimes they're absurd and often have to do with power and control, and sometimes they have magic in them. They represent life – not only 19th century life, but that they resonate into contemporary life. And, if anything, people can enjoy the stories, can laugh with them, be frightened by them – but if they make someone think about themselves in a larger world, and how one interacts with others, that would be fantastic.
"Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm" is on view through Nov. 15 at the Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. MLK. For more information, call 512/471-7324 or visit www.blantonmuseum.org.