“Once the figures are present,” writes Rachel Niffenegger of her sculptural busts, “many are brutally beaten.” All her sculpture heads are bandaged with masking tape, like mummies or burn victims, but all the figures in her drawings have their flesh bared, and their horror revealed. These faces are pulled from a muck of material, a soup of watercolor and gouache on paper. Then, features such as eyes and teeth are divined from the mess, but that’s where the artist stops. Skin, eyelids and lips are not added. Coverless teeth and eyes peer out from raw red faces. Later, Niffenegger heightens the phantasmagoric effect with smoke and candle ash.
The shocking beauty of these undead figures—their gorgeous shimmery surfaces and iridescent colors—belies their ghastliness. Flesh-eating diseases, burn traumas, zombies and torture are familiar death fantasies in contemporary culture—despite our youth obsession. Rachel Niffenegger’s victims do not suffer such specific tragedies, but by inheriting the romantic gloom of Marlene Dumas and Wangechi Mutu, she gives us an incentive to look at horror in the face. The reward is complicit satisfaction with our own demise.