"I call myself a born-again pagan, a neo-paleolithic," said Rachel Dutton, whose agile, primitivistic sculptures are on view starting today at the Municipal Art Gallery as part of its annual "Magical Mystery Tour" exhibition.
Dutton's atavistic world is often dictated by images from her dreams, images that have spurred the creation of figures rooted in what she calls pre-cultural times.
The figures are constructed by twisting hay around sticks to form a "skeleton," which is then coated with papier-mache, glue additives and tree seal (a plant-grafting compound) and sparsely decorated with seashells or bottle caps. Hay sprouts from the top and bottom of the figures. The result: primitive scarecrow- cum- animals that look as though they bathe regularly in the La Brea tar pits.
"I'm trying to come forward in time with this world that I've found and somehow place it in a contemporary setting," Dutton said.
Pieces range from lurching antelopes to the graceful "dancing" female figures with animal heads, currently occupying the gallery along with flying fish, wooden wolves, glass flowers and other enchanting art pieces that make up the stops on the tour.
Dutton, 38, does not see her creations as merely "women with horse attributes." "I see them as a manifestation of a proto-being," she said in her downtown loft, located in the same red brick building as the Double Rocking G Gallery, where a concurrent exhibition of her works is on view through Jan. 26.
"My pieces are the creatures that a lot of primitive mythologies have. My sense is that they're proto-dog, deer, horse or snake. I'm talking about life energy that is common to everybody. I'm actually surprised when people mention that they look half-animal, half-human, because I just think of them as creatures. "
The 10 figures Dutton created for the "Magical Mystery Tour" form a family unit with the two tallest, which Dutton refers to as the goddess and the god, anchoring the ensemble, followed by two intertwined kneeling figures, a twirling procession of swan, deer and snake "ancestors" suspended from wire and a small cast of other hybrids.
Dutton, who exudes an almost uncontrollable energy when she speaks, was born in Palo Alto, where she had a "tomboy/nature childhood" and was not above making stews of soil and grass in her mother's cooking pots. She was abruptly uprooted to Cleveland at age 8 but returned to Palo Alto where she first studied fine art at Stanford and later attended graduate school at Mills College, living in Mexico and the Philippines along the way. In June she moved here from Northern California with the hope of finding a more cohesive art community.
Before taking the plunge into sculpture, Dutton was a carpenter, a belly dancer and a painter. She painted her dreams and pictures of her sculptures (including a series of canvases featuring her deceased father's bones ensconced in seashells,) made costumes with shamanistic symbols painted on them and, in 1982, created a two-legged deer out of mud and straw, which launched her current fetish.
She credits her experience as a dancer, which led her into meditation and awareness of movement, as well as dream analysis, as influencing her work.
"I have a love of the earth, and from all my work with dreaming I have a real sense of wishing I was in a culture that saw the world differently, a more primitive culture," Dutton said. "I thought if I can't do it anywhere else, I can have the world I want in my studio, which was a very liberating thing. I hit this point where I wanted to reconnect with the child in me that was wilder. Ideas started flying out of me. I found myself overshooting my childhood by about 20,000 years.
"I knew that it was possible to elicit a common human response that hit something below the level of any culture. What I hope comes through in my work is that this huge matrix of primary energy in the subconscious is very tender. It's not that scary." "The Magical Mystery Tour" ends Jan. 12.