50 Uncanny Artworks


Pop surrealists and lowbrow artists owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Keane — painter of melancholic, saucer-eyed little girls. Tim Burton’s Keane biopic Big Eyes, in theaters December 25, tells the story of the tumultuous relationship Keane had with husband Walter, who took credit for her work. Amy Adams plays the artist, who struggles against her husband (played by Christoph Waltz) for control of her art. “I was as sad as that painting,” Keane said in a recent interview with Eye on the Bay, pointing to one of her famous works. “I was thinking, ‘What is all this about? Why is life so sad?’” The world-weary waifs in Keane’s paintings are doll-like and uncanny. Freud defined the uncanny as the “unhome,” or the opposite of familiar. Keane’s girls feel too fragile for this world. Here is a treasury of other artworks whose uncanny appeal has fascinated and frightened, capturing a sense of otherness, wonder, and disquiet.

Robert Gober, Untitled (Leg)

From a 1989 interview with Gober in BOMB Magazine:

Craig Gholson: Your studio is across from a graveyard. Would you consider yourself obsessed by death?

Robert Gober: You make it sound pejorative.

CG: What brought that to mind was that the sinks sometimes look like tombstones, they have a tombstone curve to them. And in fact, Two Partially Buried Sinks is basically a grave. “To sink” is a downward motion. The doorway pieces are essentially passages from one room to another, which could read as from life to death.

RG: For the most part, the objects that I choose are almost all emblems of transition; they’re objects that you complete with your body, and they’re objects that, in one way or another, transform you. Like the sink, from dirty to clean; the beds, from conscious to unconscious; rational thought to dreaming; the doors transform you in the sense that you were speaking of, moving from one space through another. But about being obsessed with death, it sounds a bit . . . depressed.

Louise Bourgeois, Janus Fleuri

“My work deals with problems that I encounter with other people. I would like people to understand and like me, which is not an easy thing to achieve. My work is not about memories, but rather about problems and difficulties in the present. My work is my psychoanalysis and like psychoanalysis, you must go back and find the source of these feelings, good and bad, in order to understand how they are operating today and affecting the way you feel and live.” —Bourgeois

Jenny Saville, Red Stare Head IV

“I like the down and dirty side of things.” —Saville

Judy Fox, Lust

In Snow White and the Seven Sins, the fairy-tale figure is surrounded by “confabulations of medieval clothing, sex, guts like livers, and dwarves.” Watch a talk by Fox at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, below.

Sarah Lucas, Ace in the Hole

From the 2005 catalog Sarah Lucas:

Ace in the Hole comes from Lucas’ renowned series of “Bunny” assemblages that she began in 1997: sculptural tableaux that incorporate stockings stuffed with cotton and wire, and shaped into the lower torso and legs of the female anatomy. The four figures’ limp legs are splayed, as their headless bodies curiously slither off chairs like cousins of the supine nude in Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. Affixed to their chair supports by clamps, the mannequins sit lifelessly in sexually suggestive positions; they are framed in a pyramidal configuration by the fourth figure whose chair rests atop a felt card table at the center of the scene.

Ed Kienholz, The Illegal Operation

“I mostly think of my work as the spoor of an animal that goes through the forest and makes a thought trail, and the viewer is the hunter who comes and follows the trail. At one point I as the trail-maker disappear. The viewer then is confronted with a dilemma of ideas and directions.” —Kienholz

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (1935)

“If the origin of my work is scandalous, it is because for me, the world is a scandal.” —Bellmer

Nayland Blake, Equipment for a Shameful Epic (detail)

“I think sometimes sculpture has its own scale that is very different to the scale of objects that we use all the time. It’s generally larger, or sometimes it’s miniature. I try to use the scale of objects in our day-to-day world. I think that when I do that, someone encountering it will try it on mentally in a way that they wouldn’t with that different scale.” —Blake

Patricia Piccinini, Balasana

From Patricia Piccinini’s website:

Balasana is the sanskrit word for ‘child’s pose’, one of the main resting positions in yoga. As a sculpture, Balasana is also a point of repose in my artistic practice. It is a moment of calm, without conflict or even much in the way of uncertainty or paradox. It is a dream-like work. When you dream, things seem to make sense at the time but when you think about them later they are incongruous. What you are left with is more of a feeling — more emotional than rational. We wonder why there is a wallaby — which is a kind of a small kangaroo – lying on the girls back. Together they are in a version of ‘balasana’ where two partners collaborate together to increase the intensity of the stretch. For me, the dreamlike quality of the work extends beyond the surreal juxtaposition of human and animal, suggesting a world where people coexist harmoniously with the natural world around them. This is a dream, I know, and likely to remain so.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies at the Base of the Crucifixion

From the Tate:

When this triptych was first exhibited at the end of the war in 1945, it secured Bacon’s reputation. The title relates these horrific beasts to the saints traditionally portrayed at the foot of the cross in religious painting. Bacon even suggested he had intended to paint a larger crucifixion beneath which these would appear. He later related these figures to the Eumenides — the vengeful furies of Greek myth, associating them within a broader mythological tradition. Typically, Bacon drew on a range of sources for these figures, including a photograph purporting to show the materialisation of ectoplasm and the work of Pablo Picasso.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Flies)

“In New York at that time there was such an enormous tendency toward the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.” —Thek in a 1969 interview

Barry X Ball, Envy / Purity

Photo credit: Joshua White

Paul McCarthy, WS

From Loddie Allison:

There is nothing wholesome about this reimagining of Snow White: it is essentially high-production porn, featuring a chaotic narrative that terminates with the death of our heroine and Walt Disney himself at the hands of seven dwarves.

The multi-channel video projected on two screens looming on either end of the installation, along with the film set and a morbid Styrofoam forest, put the grim back into the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale. On the streaming videos, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves get down and dirty in a retro, 1950s American-style ranch (a replica of Paul McCarthy’s childhood home, it should be noted). A cacophony of groans, moans, and chuckles echoes throughout the 55,000 square foot space.

Tony Oursler, Hacked

“I’d always looked toward pop culture to decipher things as a mirror of the world, and now I don’t at all, because I know who the creators are, and I can see through what they’re trying to do, so it doesn’t work on me at all. I wish it did. In a weird way, I miss it. There was a time when I used to look at pop culture and take it apart piece by piece to figure out how the magic American engine worked. I was very paranoid and full of conspiracy theories. But now I just look at it as a bunch of morons who are barely getting by, just pushing the buttons on this machine that’s rolling forward. The people have the power of production in their hands, yet the good stuff is yet to be made. The most boring things I just don’t get: people who are fascinated by Paris Hilton, phenomena like that, someone who does nothing and becomes a celebrity, or even worse the city destroyer Trump.” —Oursler

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #258

From an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art:

Therese Lichtenstein: Your images ask us to interrogate the fascination, repulsion, and disgust that we feel for the grotesque. The body is, in a sense, out of control; it has gone haywire. In its hyperbolic artificiality it is obviously a simulacrum, yet the effect is human as well as artificial. The inanimate has become animate, registering the uncanny. Your pictures refer to stereotypical erotic and pornographic models from mass culture and high art without producing their effects. You take these familiar poses and defamiliarize them. Such visual disorientation makes us ask questions. What lies behind our gaze? What is the relation between cultural formations of sexuality, gender, and censorship, and the interruption and transformation of those signs?

Sherman: I am always surprised when I read or hear somebody say that they are X-rated or pornographic because they are all obvious plastic parts. One review said I used all these sex toys, such as dildos. There weren’t any dildos in the photographs. They were just medical body parts that weren’t made for sex.

Lichtenstein: For me they were totally unerotic.

Sherman: Good! Good! Yes, that’s what I wanted.

Lichtenstein: And that’s what came across. They were totally de-eroticized. They mimicked pornographic poses without producing their effects. They were like specimens.

Sherman: Right! Yes, they allude to pornography or X-rated photos. But it’s definitely not like that at all. A few people that I would run into on the street would say, “Oh, you know I liked the show but I sure couldn’t bring my child in there.” I could sort of understand, I guess. But on the other hand they are just dolls.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles

“Jeff actually doesn’t like the word kitsch, because he finds it implies a kind of value judgment. When you call something kitsch, it’s generally critical, but he himself is trying to accept a kind of broad, democratic sense of taste. Whether one agrees with that or not, I feel like he has a kind of uncanny connoisseur’s eye for the tchotchkes and gewgaws that decorate our lives, and he’s able to zero in on the ones that have a strange power, whether it’s a little Bob Hope figurine or the inflatable animals, which are themselves representations of other things. There’s a kind of double remove at play in the way that a lot of his subjects depict other things, and I think that’s crucial to his thinking around those objects. He has always talked about his childhood in York, Pennsylvania, and his father’s decorating store there, where he gained a sensitivity to the inner life and emotional texture of some of these objects. That’s something he’s very close to and mines with a kind of expansiveness on the one hand, and a tremendous precision on the other.” — Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf

Photo credit: Muammer Yanmaz.

Doris Salcedo, Installation at 8th International Istanbul Biennial

“My work lives at the point where the political aspect of these experiences is appearing and disappearing. We are forgetting these memories continuously. That’s why my work does not represent something; it’s simply a hint of something. It is trying to bring into our presence something that is no longer here, so it is subtle.” —Salcedo

Lingxizhu Meng, Secret history of Human-animal Baby-pet

Animal-­Human Baby-­Pet is the speculative result of how synthetic biology might satisfy a biological urge while complying with modern societal restraints.” —Meng

Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture

“From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that… was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the head. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. … The kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not.” —Nauman

Jordan Wolfson, (Female Figure) 2014

Jordan Wolfson‘s (Female Figure) 2014, a terrifying robot, dances in front of a mirror, trying to capture the gaze of the spectator.

Bunny Rogers, 9years

Earlier this year we featured Bunny Roger’s Second Life photography — a “provocative and often creepy exploration of digital selfhood, sexual taboo, feminism, and longing using the virtual world’s avatars.”

Damien Hirst, The Prodigal Son

From a 2007 interview:

Hans Ulrich Obrist: A sort of umbilical cord in your work, which is more than a series, is the idea of the aquarium. You’ve spoken about that in many interviews before, but I thought it would be interesting if we could touch on it briefly. It revisits Minimalism but recharges it with a very different content. So how did this aquarium idea start?

Damien Hirst: I’ve always had a thing about glass. I had a magic mushroom experience very early on where I got a bit freaked out about being symmetrical. I imagined I had a sheet of glass running right through me. Glass became quite frightening. I think glass is quite a frightening substance. I always try and use it. I love going around aquariums, where you get a jumping reflection so that the things inside the tank move; glass becomes something that holds you back and lets you in at the same time. Its’ an amazing material; it’s something solid yet ephemeral. It’s dangerous as well. I just love glass. And it’s a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time. It’s probably my favourite material, glass. And water. No, my favourite material is water and then glass. But glass and water are very similar. Glass in water is amazing; glass disappears if you put it in water.

Sebastian Bieniek, Doublefaced No. 4

Sebastian Bieniek’s bizarre makeup portraits, painted on living women, are unleashed into the world to haunt subways and crowded city streets.

Jake and Dinos Chapman

Transgression is to be acted out as though there is a limit on it, in big white rooms. This serves the purpose of demonstrating the boundaries of bourgeois tolerance. This is what we do well – we allow people to believe that their boundaries are being a little bit stretched, just for the purpose of entertaining. Then they can go back to their normal jobs and feel not quite so awful. I actually think people have much worse thoughts in their heads. It’s just we can have license to be a bit more open about it. I suppose it’s how you define entertainment. For some, entertainment means puppy dogs, flowers and corn pops. For us it involves a certain amount of intensity.” —Chapman

Frances Glessner Lee, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Frances Glessner Lee was a grandmother who spent most of her time creating obsessively detailed dioramas that portrayed gruesome crime scenes and real-life deaths. She founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine in 1936 and trained investigators in the forensic pathology program with her Nutshell Studies — dollhouse miniatures viewable from every angle, that contained crime-scene details based on real cases. These mini models of accidents, murders, and suicides helped detectives navigate crime-scene evidence.

Dare Wright, The Lonely Doll

We wrote about Dare Wright’s photographs of dolls and bears in our Creepy Pop Culture Dolls list:

Dare Wright, a model and actress, photographed her childhood doll, Edith (named after her mother). Posing the toy with two teddy bears (believed to represent her brother and father) in real-life situations, Wright composed unexpectedly poetic photographs that led to a book series — the first of which was called The Lonely Doll (1957).

Rosa Menkman, Xilitla

“Glitches are the uncanny, brutal structures that come to the surface during a break of the flow within a technology; they are the primal data-screams of the machine…. Glitch art is a practice that studies and researches the vernacular of file formats in exploitative manners to deconstruct and create new, brutalist (audio)visual works. However, glitch artists often go beyond this formal approach; they realize that the glitch does not exists without human perception and therefore have a more inclusive approach to digital material.” —Menkman

Vija Celmins, Web 2

“I don’t know whether nostalgia is real. I don’t think you can have those kinds of emotions in the work, even though the work has allusions to many things, in spite of your intention to keep them out. What I really want to do is to concentrate on making a very strong work, a work that’s going to stay there without me. But I would not say that I’m a real expressive artist of my feelings about war, even though those early images may suggest such connections. You could also say that those images are quite naïve and childlike in that they have a little bit of a toy-like quality, compared, for instance, to a painter like Otto Dix, or Leon Golub, who can really illustrate the real horrors of war. There might be a time when you would feel that this is the only way you could ever make art. But I’ve had the privilege of living in a world where I could make other choices.” —Celmins

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ

“The only message is that I’m a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and The Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if Piss Christ upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning. There was a time prior to the 17th century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and Piss Christ is one of them.” —Serrano

Mariko Mori, Play With Me

Yayoi Kusama, Polka Dots Madness #6

“Yayoi Kusama, in merging with the universe, is everything at once. She is a novelist, a poet, an artist, a film maker, a fashion designer. She is also a little child and an old woman. She is a dot and the spaces in between. Loving and lonely, erotic and asexual, free and controlled, familiar and uncanny, and always whole.” —writer Himali Singh Soin

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

“They are the proof that something was there and no longer is.Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.” —Arbus on the nature of photographs, 1971

Meghan Boody, Night is generally my time for walking

“I’m creating worlds, physical realms that are like little parallel universes I can slip into. They give me respite from this particular level of reality…. I feel like if it’s believable for me, and if it’s a place that I want to go to, other people might want to go there too.” —Boody

Kristian Burford, Audition, Scene 2: Love Object

Yael Kanarek, Potentially Endless A

“Both arabesques and digital landscape are potentially endless forms. These arabesques, based on Euclidian geometry, are placed over the digital terrain created in the binary system. The print also refers to Copy in chapter three, Object of Desire, which describes how the traveler transcribes handwritten notes into the laptop. This work along with others is concerned with the evolution of knowledge, mainly, math or writing.” —Kanarek

Nancy Burson, Untitled

From In the In-Between:

Since the inception of her career as an artist, Nancy Burson has been interested in the interaction of art and science. In collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Burson began to produce computer-generated composite portraits in the late 1970s to early 1980s. The work was informed by centuries of social, scientific, and pseudo-scientific study of the human face. However, Burson’s attitude toward science was always laced with irony and a keen awareness of the absurdities embedded in many historic concepts, such as race and gender, which we take for granted today.

Composites explores Burson’s pioneering early work with digital technologies—now ubiquitous in photography. Digitally combining and manipulating images of often well-known individuals, including movie stars and world leaders, Burson examines political issues, gender, race, and standards of beauty. In other photographs, Burson creates playful, but unnerving, simulacra of subjects that could never exist in the real world that the medium has traditionally indexed.

Pipilotti Rist, Gravity Be My Friend

“I’ve always thought that if video art could have been part of cinema, history would have been different, since in every cinema you go to there is a room in the entrance where you have 20 minutes before you go to the film. In video, you have this free walk-in before the art beckons the viewer to come into its protected space — like a science experiment of its own kind.” —Rist

Joseph Hammer and Sayo Mitsuishi, Love Hotel Tour (Hotel Newing Yokohama)

Hammer is of experimental music collective Los Angeles Free Music Society fame. Mitsuishi is a contemporary artist.

Grazia Toderi, Orbite rosse

“Places of play and performance are key subjects in Toderi’s work. Visions of stadiums, theatres and cityscapes characterise her recent work, which articulate a path made up of personal and collective memories. These simple subjects are eloquently used to explore the relationships within the universe and man’s place within it.”

Read an interview with the Italian artist over here.

Robert and Shana Parkeharrison, Procession

From the artists’ website:

We create works in response to the ever-bleakening relationship linking humans, technology, and nature. These works feature an ambiguous narrative that offers insight into the dilemma posed by science and technology’s failed promise to fix our problems, provide explanations, and furnish certainty pertaining to the human condition. Strange scenes of hybridizing forces, swarming elements, and bleeding overabundance portray Nature unleashed by technology and the human hand.

Katharina Fritsch, Rat King

“I like to make things simple. When you do a sculpture of an animal most people have an immediate emotional response.” —Fritsch

Glenn Brown, Theatre

“Some key aspects of Glenn Brown’s practice — particularly a type of abstract portraiture and science fiction imagery — have started to morph while simultaneously becoming more pronounced in their own right. On the one hand, there are paintings . . . that draw on the history of portraiture, but are presented with the most surreal approach, and on the other hand the strange, abstract, often truncated imagery resembling heads, feet and even planets. . . . It appears that these poles of his work, which are of course intrinsically linked, are moving into their own orbits.” —Rochelle Steiner on Glenn Brown

Francesca Woodman, Space2

“The Yellow Wallpaper” brought to life.

Tony Matelli, Josh

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. It’s one of those things that seems best unidentified, or like a stone that maybe is best left unturned. If those interests are revealed too explicitly, my attraction to them is diminished.” —Matelli on the meaning of his work

Dieter Roth, Bunny dropping bunny

Bunny poop: uncanny abjection?

Julie Mehretu, Stadia I

A map to an imaginary place.

Slavs and Tatars, PrayWay

Adam Niklewicz, Wave

“On one hand, there’s the visual vocabulary of my Polish childhood, on the other – the American pop-cultural and commercial iconography. The two clash and blend together (there’s a bit of smoke) and all this occasionally produces some creative leaven.” —Niklewicz

Rachel Whiteread, Embankment

From the Tate website:

In a sense, Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture Embankment began with an old, worn cardboard box. She found it in her mother’s house shortly after she died. Whiteread was going through her mother’s belongings when she came upon a box she remembered well. It had had many lives: it used to reside in her toy cupboard next to piles of board games, and at one point was filled with Christmas decorations. Over time its sides started to collapse, the printed logo on the outside faded, and the lid came to shine with the traces of all the Sellotape used to bind it up over the years.

Chila Kumari Burman, Chila Ki Jawani (Self Portrait)

“My work may start from the self but in the process of making, it departs to explore broader issues about post-colonialist identity. Although I use images and artifacts that are autobiographical, in that they are from my life, my work is easily relatable and makes people think about their identity in general.” —Burman