Profiles of Underknown Artists
Bill Severs’ work has been on display for the last two months at the Higgleston-Pratt Gallery at the College of West West Chester. At first glance it may appear that the gallery is devoid of any artwork at all and that a visit from the exterminator is long overdue. Severs is an installation artist whose medium is insect arrangement.
When he comes to a new exhibition space he makes a careful inspection of the baseboards, carpet, ceiling, light fixtures and adjacent storage areas where he collects ants, pillbugs and the ubiquitous German cockroach. He releases his captives in the exact center of the gallery floor plan and carefully studies their movements as they flee for cover. When an individual bug arrives at a “nexus point” that the artist intuits from the topography of the room, the current configuration of insects, and from his experience as a gravel raker in a Zen monastery in Dayton, Ohio, he stabs his victim with a syringe. When all the creatures have “found their coaxially balanced spots” the floor, walls and ceiling are pincushioned with syringes.
Some assume that at this juncture of the creative process he is making a statement about drug abuse and the lowly nature of addicts. They could not be more wrong. The needles merely allow Severs to inject his specimens with a plasticizing agent that mummifies them in place. The artist declares in his statement that he is merely “making evident a pattern of action by freezing a moment in time when the insects cointersplice our plane of awareness.”
Viewers are typically mortified when they discover (as they wander around the gallery looking for art on display) that they are crushing underfoot the very art they seek. Gallery guards have been instructed to shout obscenities at these unwitting vandals and to demand compensation for damages done. Offending visitors are then escorted to a vacant gallery hung with minimalist paintings, given cans of spray insecticide and told to find replacement insects.
Severs and his assistants lie in wait in an anteroom nearby and watch a monitor. When four or five visitors find “a human nexus point” he and his associates approach them from behind and inject them with a neurotoxin that renders them immobile for twenty minutes. Photographs of the concurrent arrangements of insects and humans are shown side by side in subsequent exhibitions. The artist states that the photographs document “the random order of coincidental vectors.”
While the artist is nearly universally disdained by the uneducated public who commonly argue that “his work is utter crap” and “humans and bugs aren’t the same”, he is currently a finalist for a Peggy Guggenheim Fellowship. And the Whitney Museum is negotiating with Severs over a proposed exhibition whose nature has been kept a closely guarded secret. Insiders have been whispering that Severs plans to capture rats and mice in the museum basement and force them to run through a maze created by the supine forms of heavily sedated art critics, gallery owners and curators. The motionless human maze walls will be arranged on the floor of the upstairs gallery in a pattern mimicking the lay out of the hedges in the formal gardens of King Louis XVI at Mont-Rochefort.