KANSAS CITY, MO — Combining chance and artistic choice, Patrick Duegaw’s series, The Trials of the Golden Rat, offers a logical starting point for political allegory. The artist’s human-animal hybrids, each begun by drawing five lines with eyes closed, are loose interpretations of the twelve labors of Hercules, renowned in classical mythology for performing incredible — and incredibly violent — feats. Hercules killed several creatures, both real and mythical, captured several more, and stole magical objects belonging to powerful women. Since the Renaissance, he has appeared in Western art as a shorthand for male prowess — brutish, but effective.
In Duegaw’s take, now on view at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, the objects of Hercules’s aggression take center stage. Influenced by the #MeToo movement, the artist recasts his feats as the troubling behavior of a powerful man, while some of his targets take on the guise of powerful women standing up for themselves. In each of the 13 lithographs, Duegaw’s original lines, rendered in red, are surrounded by myriad fine black lines that capture the textures of fur and hair. “The Night Mare (or) Truth Will Out” (2020) — an interpretation of Hercules’s capture of man-eating mares — is a particularly delightful reversal in which the triumphant creature evokes both Marlene (Mare-lene?) Dietrich and Stormy Daniels, whom Donald Trump famously called “horse-face.”
Where is Hercules in all this? In Duegaw’s exhibition, he becomes the anti-hero: the Golden Rat with small hands — a subtle but legible allusion to Trump, who himself derided opponents using animal comparisons. Duegaw rightsizes Trump to a historical footnote surrounded by more notable characters, while the labors, including “nasty women” like Daniels, become the phenomena that shape the contemporary cultural landscape.
Thus, the mythic Lernean Hydra becomes a portrait of aggrieved white manhood — a nine-headed cry baby holding a silver spoon. The fire-breathing Cerynian hind transforms into the gender-bending human-deer hybrids of “Flouting the Binary” (2020). Duegaw also folds in Thomas Nast’s Republican elephant and Democratic donkey to further emphasize his own political stance. “The Cretinous Bull (or) Serving Up Doctrine” (2020) — a play on Hercules’ capture of the Cretan bull — depicts a grotesque elephant bull. “Sweeping Out the Stables (or) To Clean Up After Kings” (2020), meanwhile, alludes to the cleaning of the Augean stables, though Duegaw’s donkey looks inadequate to the task of clearing the elephant’s bullshit.
In the last four years, another artist whose work I admire, Zoe Beloff, has also produced monumental animal allegories, which got me thinking about what makes them appealing and important right now. For many, the last four years have overstrained our capacity for surprise and outrage. The hyperbole of animal allegories is one of the few means by which we can still rouse a reaction. Such allegories are also storytelling at its most primal (think children’s stories), and easier to pare down to psychological essentials. They universalize the drama of the present, a sobering reminder that as a species, we continue to struggle with our base animal impulses — indeed, those impulses are the norm rather than aberration. What Duegaw’s chimeric characters give us is both a valuable record of a strange historic moment and a way to keep asking perennial questions about whom we see as heroes.
The Trials of the Golden Rat continues through January 30 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center (2012 Baltimore Ave, Kansas City, MO) and will travel to the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago for the exhibition, Untameable Magic: Allegories of Nature and Culture.