Fulvio de Piazza, “The Patience of the Enemy No. 1” (2012), oil on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BRISTOL, UK — Do you ever wake up in the morning and think: I must do something with that cow’s head today? If so, you have something in common with artist Geza Szollosi.

Her work (more on that later) is part of an exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, UK, titled Unnatural-Natural History. Curated by Coates and Scarry, a team who advertise themselves as purveyors of radical, cutting-edge shows, this exhibition brings together work by artists from around the world who responded to the theme of nature gone awry. The intention, so far as it is discernible from the obscure curator-speak on the wall, is to give the audience images of organic hybrids and environmental apocalypse that disturb and unsettle. In fact, the curators have put together a set of paintings, sculptures, some videos and a small installation that are, with few exceptions, very competent and deeply inoffensive.

Left, Geza Szollosi, “Cow’s Head No. 7” (2012) and, right, Lindsey Carr, “The Mythical Ape,” (2011), mixed media on paper (click to enlarge)

There are plenty of pictures of animals (monkeys are popular), animals with human heads, or humans (naked females are popular) with animal heads. There are landscapes with exploding clouds and flowing rivers of lava. The prevailing style is Surrealism circa 1939 — the paradoxical pairing of impossible visual juxtapositions — but projected through the lens of contemporary art school demands, where historical amnesia leads to the illusion of radical discovery. If it weren’t for the great claims made by the curators, however, much of the work can be enjoyed on its own terms.

The one truly grotesque piece is by Szollosi, who takes the skin from a real cow’s head and, in an act of demented taxidermy, stretches it over something resembling a beach ball. The piece is both stomach-churning and compelling. You find yourself responding to the textures of the fur and the lifelike glint in the Bambi-like eyes, while a voice in your head is telling you that something is very wrong.

It’s brilliant, actually. With its pointlessly awful beauty, it is something that Unnatural-Natural History could have included more of.

Unnatural-Natural History is taking place at the Royal West of England Academy (Queen’s Road, Bristol, UK) until September 23.

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Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...