Beth Cavener: Subliminal


Trapped, 37 in. (94 cm) in length, stoneware, paint, 18k gold, rope, wood, 2015.

Aristotle said in De Anima that one of the differences between humans and animals is that animals can’t laugh. In Cavener’s work, animals not only express humor, they also personify emotions specific to humans. Like humans, Cavener’s animals are anxious, fearful, and suffering; driven by instinct or a hunger for release; they indulge in the deadly sins; or embody the four humors. Her creatures mime the subliminal emotional conflicts that plague human/animal interaction and underscore human bestiality. Her work is particularly transgressive because it presents human emotions and behaviors in the guise of  animals and crosses a line when it depicts their sexuality. Cavener strips away prudery and the veneer of domestication through her anthropomorphizing; she presents humans in animal skins. She doesn’t conceive of her pieces as animals as they are enmeshed in the concept of what it means to be human. Cavener has said her sculptures “can be seen as partial self portraits, products of self-examination and a desire to understand relationships and motivations.” The animals are not realistic, they are abstracted and gestural, their surfaces a combination of gestural painting and Abstract-Expressionism. The basic anatomy of her animals is not beast but human. It looks right visually and psychologically because we are so attuned to the Disney model of animal representation, one that also merges human and animal physiques. Unlike Disney, Lladro, or Meissen’s idealized and asexual animal figurines, Cavener’s animals thrive at the borderline of camp and kitsch while they discourage cliché and sentimentality.

Contradictory Chimeras

The Question that Devours, 5 ft. 4 in. (1.6 m) in height, stoneware, paint, 2012.

Cavener divides her subject matter into three personality types: victims, predators, and manipulators. These prototypes embody a wide range of emotional states and physical characteristics. The animals chosen have symbolic, emotional, and historical significance. The merging of human and animal psyches creates chimeras bearing a collection of contradictory human and animal attributes. Cavener’s work has been influenced by the animal imagery and fables of numerous cultures; Chinese tomb animals, Assyrian rhytons, and Pre-Columbian and Egyptian animal figures.

Cavener works in series characterized by a specific theme and cast of personae. Titles of these series include A Modest ProposalThe Four HumorsApologia, and Come Undone. The scale of the animals is determined by the dominance of their presence or by what she considers equal to her own physical presence. The bound animal is a common theme in Cavener’s work; it may have its legs tethered together, be leashed, or affixed to the wall in some way. They often embody the contrary notions of cruelty and satiety.

Netted Hare is a small white hare trapped in a net bag suspended from a Victorian cast-iron hook. In its bondage, it stares impassively upward, trapped but not suffering, pondering its fate. Netted Hare is an instance of her symbolic use of the wild hare. None bear realistic facial features; she generally exaggerates the proportions of the feet and the position of the ears. Even though hares are prey animals, the expressions of her hares vary; they may be libidinous, egotistical, apathetic, or regal in addition to fearful or cowering.


Obariyon, 3 ft. 10 in. (1.2 m) in length, stoneware, antique hooks, 2013. 3

The Question that Devours shows a different kind of hare, one that is either about to be devoured or has fallen from the mouth of the wolf suspended on the wall above it. The hare’s face and body language is impassive unlike that of the gray wolf who glares down in rage, blood lust, or frustration. The image of the wolf, a predator animal, is one Cavener often uses as a symbol of instinctual cruelty. The shape of the pair resembles a question mark—underscoring the ambiguity of the tableau and giving it its title.

Deer are also part of Cavener’s menagerie. Obariyon, part of the Japanese folklore series Cavener is currently engaged with, is a recumbent struggling deer whose massive, ornate, cast-iron antlers have sunk it to the ground, dragging its head up and back. It stares impassively upwards, consumed by its fate. The title refers to the invisible Japanese piggyback demon that is capable of attaching itself to a person’s back. Although invisible, as it feeds on the victim’s depression and misery, the Obariyon’s heavy weight makes it progressively harder for the person to function.

Cavener’s interest in Japanese art can be seen clearly in her hanging piece Tangled up in You, a collaboration with the artist Alessandro Gallo. It is the one of her few pieces that includes a non-mammal figure, in this case an enormous twisting blue serpent. The serpent is patterned with pale blue tattoos based on Japanese woodblock prints and on the work of contemporary painters including Walton Ford (see 7). The coils of the snake are tightly wound around a thick rope suspended from the ceiling; most of its body encircles its prey, a dark gray hare. The hare is totally passive; there is only resignation on its face. Despite its theatricality, there is something so naturalistic about the piece that the imagery seems more matter-of-fact than violent.


Netted Hare, from the Four Humors series, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, stained porcelain, hemp net, mixed media, 2010.

A Physical Process

Cavener had a classical sculptural training; as an undergraduate, she worked five days a week for four years drawing from models. She uses the traditional techniques associated with figure sculpting in clay, particularly the use of armatures. Cavener’s work process is enormously physical, sometimes using thousands of pounds of clay supported by complex metal armatures. She works the clay using her whole body, carving with palms of her hands and fingernails, razoring pieces off with the wire tool and slamming chunks of clay, sometimes 20 pounds worth, back onto the forms. She moves the surfaces with broken pieces of wood, pushing the clay into place and also uses pieces of wood to support limbs in specific positions so that the animals often look like they just moved. Then she spends several months separating the wet clay from the armature and hollowing the piece to ¼-inch thickness. It’s during this second stage that she refines the details and pushes from the inside, swelling the muscles and folds to animate the surface. As she says, “I spend an eighth of my time creating the form and seven eighths preserving it.”

Tangled Up in You, 5 ft. 5 in. (1.6 m) in height (figures), 15 ft. (4.6 m) in height (installed), stoneware, ink, paint, rope, 2014. Japanese-style tattoo designed with and painted by Alessandro Gallo.

Tangled Up in You (detail), 5 ft. 5 in. (1.6 m) in height (figures), 15 ft. (4.6 m) in height (installed), stoneware, ink, paint, rope, 2014. Japanese-style tattoo designed with and painted by Alessandro Gallo.

Hollowing out always entails the animals being cut into sections. Some of the smaller animals are then reassembled while the clay is still malleable and are dried and fired in one piece, however, most of the animals are reassembled and cut into specific sections prior to drying and firing. These sections are then reassembled after firing. Cavener fires once, a process that often takes a week. Afterward the sections are reassembled using various kinds of epoxy. She never glazes her pieces but paints them using Martha Stewart’s Signature designer colors mixed into a high-quality interior latex paint that contains a large amount of calcined kaolin. That is why the finished surfaces look so much like clay. She sometimes uses odd colors for the animals’ bodies to remove them from the representational to a symbolic context. For many years, she concentrated on a palette of grays and blacks and then began to use color expressively to evoke character and emotion.

Forgiveness, 36 in. (91 cm) in height (figure), 6 ft. (1.8 m) in height (installed), stoneware, paint, powder-coated steel, wasp nest, 2015.

Committed, 21 in. (53 cm) in height (each figure), 6 ft. 6 in. (1.9 m) in height (installed), stoneware, paint, leather, steel chain, 2015.

What it Means to be Human

To believe Cavener’s work is about animals is like saying that Melville’s Moby Dick is a story about a whale. Like Melville’s novel, her work is a thinly veiled discourse on animal nature embodied in humans and human nature symbolized by animals. It illustrates the theory that parts of our brain and psyches retain characteristics of our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Her figures dramatize the futility of human speech by draping themselves in the profound silence of animals. Reality, mythology, and ritual are combined in her work, underscoring its complex visual, psychological, and philosophical themes.

the author Kathleen Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California. 

Subscriber Extra Content

Diminuendo, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, stoneware, paint, rope, cans with patina, 2008.

Forgiveness, installation up to 6 ft. (1.83 m) in height, stoneware, paint, rope, powder coated steel, wasp nest, 2015.

Forgiveness, installation up to 6 ft. (1.83 m) in height, stoneware, paint, rope, powder coated steel, wasp nest, 2015.

Forgiveness, installation up to 6 ft. (1.83 m) in height, stoneware, paint, rope, powder coated steel, wasp nest, 2015.

Unrequited, 3 ft. 9 in. (1.1 m) in length, resin infused refractory material, paint, steel base, 2015.

Unrequited, 3 ft. 9 in. (1.1 m) in length, resin infused refractory material, paint, steel base, 2015.

Unrequited, 3 ft. 9 in. (1.1 m) in length, resin infused refractory material, paint, steel base, 2015.

Unrequited, 3 ft. 9 in. (1.1 m) in length, resin infused refractory material, paint, steel base, 2015.

Your Eyes Have Their Silence, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, stoneware, paint, cat whiskers, sticks, 2009.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

Tangled Up in You, up to 15 ft. (4.57 m) in height, stoneware, ink, paint, rope, Japanese-style tattoo designed and painted by Alessandro Gallo, 2014.

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