Sculptor Ajax Axe imagines ‘Palace of the Beast’ at Skye Gallery in Aspen
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Ajax Axe, ‘The Palace of the Beast’
Where: Skye Gallery
When: Opening Saturday, July 14, 6-9 p.m.
More info: skyegalleryaspen.com
Ajax Axe’s new show at the Skye Gallery invites you to cast a spell, to perform a ritual, to spin a wheel of fortune, to step inside of a sculpture and peer out from it.
The interactive and playful 21-piece show uses fun and tongue-in-cheek magic as a sugar-coated hook while offering some fierce commentary on the stories we tell ourselves as individuals and as a society.
“I find most gallery shows dry and boring,” Axe said during a walk through her cabin studio on a remote patch of untamed land on the backside of Aspen Mountain. “They don’t think about the viewer at all. It’s like they don’t care. For me, the viewer is so important. I think about a concept and then I think about how I can make the viewer think. That’s why we’re doing so many interactive elements in the show.”
She has been making on this new body of work, called “The Palace of the Beast,” for about a year — crafting creatures from cute to monstrous and stuffing them with ideas.
In “A War Story,” she’s made a long-necked, gold-painted sphinx figure with toy soldiers serving as its mane. When lit from below, it casts a shadow of soldiers in battle.
In “A Monstrous Identity,” a steel human-like figure has the word “ME” scribbled on it repeatedly in chalk and is wrapped in a cape of extremist flags — including a pro-gun rights flag daring “Come and Take It” and a “Don’t Tread on Me” banner along with a Hezbollah flag. In “Evolutionary Forces,” she’s put the stock of a rifle on top of four steel walking legs, with an open body filled with pistols.
The project began with the idea of a triangle, for the artist, who has also worked as a writer and photojournalist. The triangle’s three sides, she imagined, were “imagination,” “story” and “identity,” with “belief” in the middle.
“The idea is that we construct most of reality from those four things and imagination is the key element,” she explained. “We imagine things and we use them to shape society and ourselves. I want to set up this show as a way to deconstruct those identities and those stories.”
Human imagination and storytelling has immense power, she noted, for both good and evil. That dichotomy is the heart of this body of work.
Axe’s sculptural projects almost always begin, she said, with a narrative. A previous high concept body of work, “The Cult of Phi,” occupied her for two years and imagined an enlightened post-apocalyptic society. She displayed more than 30 of those pieces in 2016 at the Gonzo Gallery.
Each sculpture in “The Palace of the Beast” has its own magical spell to go along with it. Visit the gallery and you’ll get a spell card, with rituals and spells to do with the pieces.
“The story is the most important part for me,” she said. “One of the biggest problems in the contemporary art world is the lack of narrative arc in shows. That makes people feel very disassociated from the work.”
There’s little risk of disassociating here. These sculptures are as wise as they are clever. Your first reaction may be a smirk at the surface-level humor and weirdness in “The Palace of the Beast,” but you also won’t be able to shake the resonant, challenging ideas Axe confronts you with in this show.
In a pair of Muppet-like sculptures covered in African raffia palms, you can go inside and become part of the sculpture. One has letters and numbers dangling from its palm coat. It lowers down from the gallery ceiling on a pulley and puts the viewer inside with their face looking out through a row of small jail-cell bars.
“It’s all about how language is the prison we live inside,” Axe said.
The other, called “Reality Distortion Field,” invites viewers to enter from behind it and look into a glass window, through which outside viewers see a massive eye staring out at them.
A handful of the pieces wield their messages more bluntly.
Axe offers commentary on the anti-evolution crowd with a monkey sculpture, its head an antique chalkboard on which “I am not a monkey” is scrawled repeatedly.
“A lot of the time I’m just subtly making fun of things,” she said. “This is definitely the most offensive piece in the show.”
In “Dogma,” Axe has welded a two-headed dog-like skeleton out of steel, with two coyote skulls appended and bearing flags reading “In Fantasy We Trust” and “The Chosen of God Live Forever.”
“Part of the reason I do creatures is that they’re so visceral,” she said of the many Seussian animal-like forms in the show. “I want people to have an emotional reaction before they have an intellectual reaction.”
Axe welded the steel pieces at Anderson Ranch Arts Center over the winter, with most assembly and construction at her rugged Aspen Mountain creative oasis. Working there, out of reach from cellphones, far from paved roads, amid the thick pine and brush near Midnight Mine, the artist can’t avoid letting some wildness into her work.
“It makes you think about the relationship between humans and nature a lot,” she said. “And I don’t feel as compelled to conform, I think, with social norms because I can always escape civilization here.”
While the artist has been working toward this Skye Gallery exhibition for a year, she has more to say and more work to do on “The Palace of the Beast.”
“Deconstructing the nature of human identity and belief, you could spend a lifetime on that,” she said. “People have.”