Arts Magazine: The Unicorn in Captivity

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

The Unicorn in Captivity
New paintings by Alexa Horochowski will open the MAEP gallery in the new wing.

by Jodie Ahern
Twin Cities artist Alexa Horochowski infuses her new paintings with humor and kitsch. At the same time, she pulls the menacing fears of the subconscious into her motifs. The resulting paintings are at once whimsical, funny, unabashed—and macabre, serious, even startling. Like Horochowski’s prints, photographs, sculptures, and installations, these paintings hover in a delicate balance between laughter and horror, one side of the Looking Glass and its mirror opposite, childhood and adulthood, life and death. More than once these images conjure the complicated visions of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice in Wonderland and its original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel.

Horochowski’s solo exhibition of large, acrylic paintings on gessoed paper, titled, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” is the inaugural show of the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) in the program’s gallery space in the new wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Opening June 11, the exhibition runs through August 13, and features large (62 x 52 inches) paintings of pre-adolescent youths—mostly girls—engaged in seemingly harmless play, set against a magical backdrop of open land and bright water. The landscapes, however, are peppered with the repeating element of gnarled, leafless, and menacing trees. These trees recall the foreboding forest imagery from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and its illustrations by W. W. Denslow.

In both Carroll’s and Baum’s stories, written and illustrated for children but with underlying political context for the adults reading these tales aloud, young girls embark on great adventures during which they shed the innocence of childhood and enter the complicated world of adults. The original illustrations for both books are cartoony drawings colored in flat hues without modeling. Horowshowski’s new paintings follow a similar aesthetic. It is a style, said Horochowski, “that is influenced by artists since Andy Warhol, such as Kara Walker and Takashi Murakami, who take elements from graphic arts and incorporate them into the fine arts.”

It is not surprising to learn that Horochowski has some background in printmaking, as these new works are graphic, like hand-colored woodcuts or subtly colored silkscreen prints. The artist said she works with many art-historical references, in particular Japanese woodcuts, medieval imagery, and Renaissance tapestries and paintings. She has brought a unicorn image, with all of its allegorical baggage and little-girl appeal, into her cast of characters, acknowledging a fascination with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tapestry series The Hunt of the Unicorn as Lover (Netherlands, c. 1495–1505). She also concedes a style debt to Japanese prints in her deliberate “collapsing of perspective,” and a content debt to rococo painters Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). In one Horochowski painting children dance in a formation recalling Henri Matisse’s 1909 oil, La Danse (the Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Of her compositions, Horowchowski said, “These visual narratives often explore my bicultural, Argentinean-Midwestern experience.” She spent most of her girlhood in Argentina, one of four children of Argentinean parents with roots in Spain and the Ukraine. She often paints “twins,” a boy and a girl, or racially diverse children, to highlight “one’s fascination with ‘the other.’” Likewise, her photography exhibition, “Latina Incognita,” at No Name Exhibitions@The Soap Factory (Minneapolis, 2000) contrasted typical Latina and European exoticism of each other’s culture. Horochowski’s new pictures are sexually charged as well. The youngsters depicted are often unashamedly naked, boys and girls together, teetering on the brink of sexual actualization. “It is an awareness that is met with cool impunity and indifference such as is only possible in the vigor of youth,” she said.

The artist, who earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has exhibited photographs, sculptures, and installations in Chile and Argentina, as well as Spain, Italy, and many major American cities. She’s received Jerome and McKnight artist grants and is an assistant professor of art at St. Cloud State University. She is represented by Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, and Braga Menéndez Gallery, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Monique Meloche Gallery will sponsor this exhibition at Schopf Gallery, Chicago, after its run as an MAEP show.

“The Unicorn in Captivity” is an appropriate parallel to the other major Grand Opening exhibitions at the MIA: Horochowski’s imagery is often dreamlike, evoking Surrealism, as in “The Surreal Calder;” her obvious experience as a printmaker nods to “The Jones Collection,” and her work as a photographer references “The Harrison Collection.” Her typically unframed paintings have been matted and framed for a more formal presentation within this impressive context.

Opening reception for “The Unicorn in Captivity” is at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 15, and a gallery talk will be held at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 22.

“The Unicorn in Captivity” June 11 through August 13, 2006 Minnesota Artists Gallery The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program is supported in part by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation.

Citation: Jodie Ahern, "The Unicorn in Captivity New paintings by Alexa Horochowski will open the MAEP gallery in the new wing," Arts 29, No. 3 (May/June 2006): 24-25.