Headless Trophies for Our Cultural Decadence

Wendy Red Star "Tokens, Gold and Glory" (2016) (image courtesy of Hap Gallery)
Wendy Red Star “Tokens, Gold and Glory” (2016) (image courtesy of Hap Gallery)

PORTLAND, Oregon — What can a herd of headless deer painted gold with gaudy tinsel tails teach the 1% and the rest of us? The answer is a lot. It’s debatable whether we can honestly call them deer anymore, as they are decapitated, artificially golden, and stand lifelessly frozen. So, artist Wendy Red Star refers to them as tokens.

In case you’ve been living in near isolation, the policies enacted by our growing plutocracy are ruining nature, killing animals, and turning Earth into an oven. The 1%-ers apparently aren’t rich enough.

Isn’t denial deceptively sweet? Between the polite fictions of the Discovery Channel, trips to the zoo, and blockbusters with furry friends, it’s easy to pretend things aren’t that bad and believe animals and the environment are making out just fine.

Wendy Red Star wants to challenge this prevailing delusion. She created golden sculptures for Tokens, Gold, and Glory at Hap Gallery that indict modern industrialized society for its mistreatment of animals and the disruption of ecosystems. Maximizing profits motivates most animal cruelty and harms to habitats, so turning animals to gold becomes a potent symbol for profiteering, commodifying, and wrecking nature.

Wendy Red Star "Tokens, Gold and Glory" (2016) (image courtesy of Hap Gallery)
Wendy Red Star “Tokens, Gold and Glory” (2016) (image courtesy of Hap Gallery)

Get close to the sculptures — observe the subtle lines trying to convey deer hair. Have you seen live deer up close? The hatch-marks barely echo this texture because gold paint makes the strands look too fake and shiny. The missing heads allude to trophies, often hanging on the walls of hunters, but the gash of decapitation is glossed over by the metallic shine. Formal analysis demonstrates how much gold can disguise and distort, alluding to how much greed can blind.

The entire floor in the main room at the Hap gallery is covered in astroturf. The sculptures are slightly raised on small astroturf covered platforms. The turf enhances the artificiality of the setting. The deer face different directions. It’s like they are on display as trophies of decadence.

Did King Midas touch this herd? It’s hard not to think about Ovid‘s legend of a golden touch backfiring. Two thousand years later, many powerful people still yearn to turn everything into gold, into profits, but also into their peril.

Why do most reality checks about ecology bounce like a bad check? Probably because interconnected long-term environmental impacts don’t appear on the balance sheets or in the quarterly profit reports.

But the real bottom line is that most Americans don’t need to earn more than $75,000 to be happy. So, what the wealthiest reaps from wrecking the Earth isn’t making them any happier. Yes, defining happiness may be tricky, and research shows it costs a tad more for New Yorkers to be happy. Nevertheless, social scientists are demonstrating how money only improves the quality of life up to a point.

Wendy Red Star @hapgallery #pdxart #contemporaryart #wendyredstar

A photo posted by @60inchcenter on

The gallery experience on opening night would have been stronger if it had been accompanied by an artist statement. Because Red Star is all about innovating new metaphors, her work can be challenging to decode at first. Offering viewers more explanation in her own voice about what’s she’s thinking allows us to takeaway more from an encounter with her work. After the opening, Wendy Red Star gave an excellent interview with Venison where she explained, “Gold is so loaded. It comes with all this baggage.” It would have enhanced art encounters on opening evening if those ideas had been written down and shared.

There are many witty barbs about the follies of the 1%. But it’s no laughing matter how Earth’s future and most animals now hang by a thread. Retelling old fables or repeating the familiar inconvenient truths isn’t pricking enough millionaires’ consciences. Now more than ever, we need new images and new narratives to weave together new understandings about money and ecology. Wendy Red Star is answering the call of our times with this intriguing herd of headless gold deer. Hopefully, this reality check won’t bounce.

Tokens, Gold and Glory continues at Hap Gallery (916 NW Flanders Street, Portland, Oregon) until August 28. 

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