Cute animals have always been a safe and reliable refuge from the stresses of daily life. Pets are scientifically proven to make us happier, and our brains reward us with dopamine every time we see something looking helpless and/or adorable. Alake Shilling considers what happens when the tables are turned; what if your cute pet is now looking back at you for reassurance?
Taking inspiration from nature photos, disco album covers and Lisa Frank stationery, she uses the language of cartoons to animate feelings. She explains that rather than being people or animals, her characters serve to embody specific emotions. Bears with huge, tragic, drooping eyelids, startled tigers and deflated ladybirds move amorphously across Shilling’s oil paintings and ceramics.
Some paintings become three-dimensional as she builds textured, waved edges around the canvas. It’s as if the paint has seeped onto the surrounding walls. The warped, psychedelic backdrops combined with the animals’ sunken faces combine to give us the impression that they are slowly melting.
Her ceramics are decorated from front to back, as ladybird spots become big beads of clay and fur is rendered within individual pieces. Having grown up in Los Angeles, Shilling cites Californian Funk Art as a major influence. Non-functional ceramic art was an important part of the movement, free to be unrefined, funny and absurd; sculpture for sculpture’s sake. Shilling embraces this fully, and avoids direct political commentary in her work, reasoning: “I do feel that being a black female artist who doesn’t explicitly comment on race, class, or gender is a political commentary in itself”.
“The warped, psychedelic backdrops combined with the animals’ sunken faces combine to give us the impression that they are slowly melting”
The characters she depicts are never entirely new, but rather amalgamations of different cartoons. Some feel familiar, like Minnie Mouse; some remind you of TV shows you watched when you were younger but can’t quite put your finger on. Taken out of context and pasted on top of glaring rainbow gradients, they appear stuck in some sort of alternate reality, caught between a dream and a nightmare. Deliberately hard to place but fun to figure out, Shilling encourages and tests the viewer to remember their childhood.