Anthropomorphic Art: Q+A with Richard Ahnert
WORDS: Samantha Shaw
ARTIST: Richard Ahnert
SPONSORED BY: One of a Kind
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In anticipation of One of a Kind’s 2019 Spring Show kicking off this month, we’re showcasing some of the incredible artists you’ll find at the show. Browse last week’s Gift Guide, and join us today for our Q+A with Toronto-based artist Richard Ahnert (Booth Q03).
Since fables and fairy tales, anthropomorphism has long been used as a literary device. We often see it used in children’s books in a light and playful way—but your work has this quiet, alluring depth to it. Your paintings evoke emotion; they tell us a story. Do you start your creative process with a narrative and then figure out how to express that through painting, or while you’re painting does a backstory sort of conjure itself?
It’s actually a bit of both. I often get images in my head like a still from a movie, and then I start building a storyline and characters around that imagery. I’ll either write down thoughts or sketch out ideas, almost a storyboard, and if anything really resonates with me I put it to canvas.
Your work explores the relationship between humans and animals. Oftentimes there’s a sense of kinship, and other times it feels like there’s tension between the two. Can you describe some of the dominant themes you explore in your work?
Even when there is a perceived tension in a piece, I usually have a positive message hidden within. In the piece ‘Unseeing’, a young person seemingly unaware of a polar bear surrounded with litter and graffitied seems like a dire message at first. We are caught up in our social media worlds, where we see these hardships and make promises of change, but often move on quickly without action. The problems aren’t just on our screens though.. they are right under our noses. But in my vision, I see that nature and wildlife are far more resilient than we imagine. It was intentional that I used a bear here that appears healthy and strong. His hair is thick, and he also shows indifference toward the person. He wears his graffiti almost proudly, as though he has adapted to this new reality. Our efforts need to be at least as great as nature’s efforts. There’s hope in my vision, and if even just one person is inspired by one painting, it’s a step in the right direction.
There’s a lot of urban influence in your work. Do you spend a good amount of time in the city? What aspects of urban life and culture are you inspired by?
I live in the city and it provides me with a constant source of inspiration. The people, the architecture, the noise. I grew up spending some time in nature and loving wildlife - but being around an urban setting always, it was natural for me to merge these two worlds. I love everything about city life, but in a perfect world, nature would have a bigger presence here.
Why place wild animals in urban settings? What’s the dialogue to be had here?
The dialogue is always whatever the viewer wants it to be. The interpretation is the fun part and most people will have different viewpoints. But it’s essentially about the impact we leave on nature as our environment envelopes the rest of the natural world. The marks we leave behind and vice versa.
What other influences can we find in your work? Are there certain people, places, and eras you look to for inspiration?
I do often revisit characters and narratives. These characters and scenes are often a reflection of my own world. It’s only natural to draw on our personal life, and it’s important to talk about what you know. As my world enriches with new people, experiences and ideas, so do the topics that I’m comfortable exploring.
Much of your earlier work features animal heads on human bodies, and then we start to observe a shift toward a more subtle and quiet animism. It feels like a new depth was discovered in your art and storytelling. How do you feel your work has evolved over time?
For sure. Earlier on I was way more character driven, and left more to the imagination of the viewer (what was happening off of the canvas). But now I do like to delve a bit further into those stories. Creating deeper environments and backgrounds. I began to explore the idea that you can really personify wildlife without being quite so literal. I find the work is now more relatable to a larger audience. I’m sure that I’ll continue to push these boundaries and evolve my message.
Art is a powerful way of cataloguing one’s thoughts and feelings. It can be deeply autobiographical, while also speaking to people on a very personal level. Are any of your paintings autobiographical in a sense?
Well, I think it’s important to have an emotional connection for sure. As mentioned, often these stories are built on personal experiences, opinions and people in my life. But that only provides a voice that guides me in how a piece or the story within is structured. How that story unfolds is left to interpretation. It should be a personal experience, journey, for everyone looking at it. I typically prefer to leave it open that way and not talk to my own experience.
You’re back at the One of a Kind Show in just a few weeks, and I imagine you’ll be rolling deep with a whole host of animals! What sort of work can we find at your booth?
I’ll have new original paintings and hand made pigment transfers on hand, as well as some old favourites!
A show of this scale requires a lot of physical and mental energy! I can imagine it’s equal parts fulfilling and exhausting. There’s this photo I saw on your Instagram feed from the holiday show and it made me laugh. I guess that sums it up pretty well, doesn’t it?
Yeah - that really does sum it up. It can pretty overwhelming, but I still look forward to it and the rush I get from the frenzy every year.