The Uncanny Personal Universe of 10 Artists


On the East Coast, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is hosting David Lynch’s first major museum exhibition in the United States. David Lynch: The Unified Field explores the director’s personal iconography from his beginnings as a painter in the ‘60s to the present.

Meanwhile, the West Coast is celebrating the work of San Francisco-based artist Matt Borruso at the Steven Wolf Fine Arts exhibit Wax House of Wax. Images of the grotesque, fantastic, and domestic populate Borruso’s cabinet of curiosities—“disparate elements [that] form an uncanny personal universe.”

Taking a cue from Lynch and Borruso, and their idiosyncratic worlds, here are ten other artists whose works form an intriguing personal cosmology and explore the uncanny.

Trenton Doyle Hancock

Shaped by a wide range of influences—including fantastical plant and animal creatures, biblical dramas, and art historical references—Trenton Doyle Hancock’s invented worlds form an explosive personal mythology.

Paul Swenbeck

“I present artworks as tools or artifacts to communicate with creatures that populate a spirit world,” Paul Swenbeck states. Science fiction, pagan symbols, and ancient folk tales are transformed into personal totems.

Gregor Schneider

Gregor Schneider re-contextualizes existing architectural environments (sometimes entire apartment blocks) into uncanny spaces that immerse the viewer in the bowels of our collective psyche. “In this private universe, where time seems to have come to a standstill, his investigations into space can proceed without external disturbance, writes designer Keehan Konyha. “‘Whether I am insulating myself from the world, or whether it’s a breakthrough—I don’t really know,’” states the artist.

Matthew Barney

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones on Matthew Barney’s bizarre multimedia opus, The Cremaster Cycle:

Barney’s Cremaster Cycle also tries to find pattern in chaos, to give us back some of the imaginative sustenance of myth and symbol. Where Coppola and Scorsese found a deep well of myth and ritual in Italian Catholicism, Barney—who belongs to a generation cut off by mass media, irony and time from cultural tradition—has pieced together his own mythology, his own rituals, his own history, from assorted fragments. Some of these are personally connected to him—he is from Gilmore’s midwest, he has Celtic forebears, he lives in New York—but most are common to the culture.

Laura Shill

Colorado artist Laura Shill on her undulating installations:

I would like people to respond and be drawn in, but the more time they spend with my work, the more unsettled or discomforted they should feel. I want to seduce, then repulse people. . . . I see the body as a personal universe. The idea with the pink tube installation, for example, was to take bodily forms and create a small, enclosed space inside of a larger one. The viewer is invited to enter into space, and have intimate, private moment in a public space, almost like you’re entering into a body.

Anselm Kiefer

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow documents Anselm Kiefer’s most astonishing work—the creation of a “gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art.” The film “bears witness to [the German artist’s] alchemical creative processes and renders as a film journey the personal universe he has built at his hill studio estate in the South of France.” Idiom magazine writes:

As Kiefer has said point-blank, “My work is never about today.” Motifs from Teutonic lore, Lurianic messianism, Jewish mysticism, Old Norse poetry, Babylonian texts, and Oriental mythology recur obsessively in his art. In the film, Kiefer jumps from a meditation on Jason, leader of the Argonauts, to the sephiroth of Kabbalistic creation myth. He mentions 16th-century polymath Robert Fludd in passing and recounts Heidegger’s lectures on boredom, then turns to quantum physics. He scrawls the Hebraic name “Schechina” across the top of a canvas, pencils the digits one through ten on a stiffened white dress, and shouts “Bonjour Tristesse!” while throwing plates of glass in his flip-flops. Each moment attests to Kiefer’s profound idiosyncrasy and the intensely personal nature of his iconography. Tracing the tenuous lines of convergence that unite his work, Kiefer’s spectator must leap across cultures and epochs with no guarantee of finding stable ground.

Rosemarie Trockel

A Cosmos opens a door onto Trockel’s personal universe of affinities and interests through artworks and artefacts selected…juxtaposed with a constellation of zoological specimens, botanical illustrations and work by other artists,” writes Art Daily. Part wunderkammer, part personal library, one of the exhibit’s most startling pieces featured outsider artist Morton Bartlett‘s creepy ballerina doll displayed next to a severed leg and glass of whisky.

Carolyn Janssen

“I project my own kooky cosmology and design my own epic narratives based on my experiences,” states digital artist Carolyn Janssen. “I use the work as an opportunity to create my own morality paintings, my own science fiction fantasies, complete with references to Lisa Frank, girl Tumblr blogs, feminism, and our digitally expressed lives. They reference the video games, movies and religious art I’ve digested, and reveal a perhaps sincere desire to create and live in my own complex, mythic universe.” Janssen’s female clones piled across her pastel post-apocalyptic landscapes toy with our notions of the seductive and sublime in disquieting ways.

Amy Cutler

Amy Cutler’s reimagines female archetypes and rituals through surreal, sometimes psychosexual folk tales, set in a hybrid universe of women and animals.

Louise Bourgeois

“Performing uncanny exorcisms, she navigated the labyrinths of her past and her unconscious through her creations,” writes e-flux on the queen of the uncanny, Louise Bourgeois. “Through the spinning of metonymical visual narratives, Bourgeois’s work forms a web of stories about her life that are simultaneously stories about the paradoxes of the human condition and served as a crucible in which a Self—straining towards of the nearly impossible yet existentially necessary act of connecting with Others—could be forged out of alienation and personal trauma.” In Bourgeois’ world, the abject, foreign, and familiar rest uncomfortably close.