Arts Death becomes her
So far, the most blatantly political painting Cara De Angelis has done is one of Donald Trump wearing a crown fashioned from a menagerie of dead animals.
The biggest creature, the unplanned piece de resistance, is a limp rabbit with fur almost matching the president’s hair.
“I’m so glad I had that rabbit because that rabbit had the similar tawny color that he bakes into his hair,” recalls De Angelis. “I had a couple of chipmunks in there, too. It was basically what I had in my freezer at the time and what could fit on a head.”
Besides the rabbit and the chipmunks, De Angelis’ freezer also happened to contain a useful sparrow and a squirrel with a wounded haunch. She painted it dripping blood down the president’s left temple.
Her Trumpian portrait appeared in “Uprise/Angry Women,” one of the artists’ protest exhibits staged to coincide with his 2017 inauguration. Hers got national media notice. But she did not pull the animals out of her freezer just to mock Trump.
De Angelis, who grew up in Monroe and now lives in Brookfield, began incorporating roadkill into her art, and keeping specimens in a freezer, early in her still young career. Since getting her MFA at the New York Academy of Art in 2011, she’s done a whole series of paintings of people, mostly women, posed with roadkill.
One of the earliest, “Woman with Roadkill IV” from 2012, shows a glamorous woman in low-cut black gown curled on a brocaded couch with a dead fox in her lap. Nestled against her side is what appears to be a pet swan. In 2017, De Angelis painted Ivanka Trump wearing a low-cut green gown sitting on the same couch, but with a dead bird and rabbit and what appears to be a live cat.
In the case of Ivanka, De Angelis included the borrowed image of the cat to make a specific point about her role in her father’s administration. “That cat was supposed to represent the American people, including myself, looking to Ivanka (and asking) what are you going to do? Are you going to help us? Are you going to hurt us?”
More generally, however, De Angelis is using Ivanka the same way she uses her other women: to ask more profound questions about what people are doing to their relationship with the natural world. Anonymous and apparently wealthy, they share inscrutable expressions, somewhere between bored and troubled.
“I wanted to be ambiguous,” she says. “Do they know there’s roadkill on them? I hope I’m not hitting people over the head.”
De Angelis cannot rely exclusively on roadkill she’s picked up. Some, like pheasants and exotic game birds, she poaches from hunting still lifes, in particular those done by 17th-century Flemish painters she has studied. At the same time, the old masters add crucial context to her own art.
As initially strange as using roadkill may seem, De Angelis says she has company among living artists and links their work to the pre-industrial tradition of painting killed game or livestock.
“What animals mean to us now is extremely different from what they meant in 17th century Netherlands. I’m combining their symbols with my own,” she says.
Her swan, for instance, may seem a domesticated pet. But to Flemish painters, it was a symbol of privilege. “Most people weren’t allowed to hunt swans and pheasants. You were only allowed to hunt them if you came from a certain class,” she says.
The connection is made most explicit in another series of paintings she’s done showing wealthy couples sitting before a feast. Their common title, “Laid Table,” refers to an old genre of domestic paintings. She’s also does a series using dolls and puppets instead of people. In one, Big Bird is suspended like a dead pheasant. In another, he survives to cradle what appears to be a dead woodchuck.
De Angelis describes herself as having been “a kind of environmental freak” since adolescence. She recalls her first roadkill rescue was a squirrel she picked up on the way home from a funeral 10 years ago.
“I saw him there and I decided not to continue ignoring all the bodies on the road. I decided let me just bring him home and see what happens,” she says.
What happened was the simple study she did of that poor squirrel led to her dialogue with Flemish painters and also to the environmental themes in her art. She says she’s interested in the post-war period that ushered in super-highways, suburban commuting (and the very term roadkill). By extension, she has a particular interest in the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
“I’m obsessed with his vision for humanity, to live alongside nature, to bring nature inside,” she says.
Last year, De Angelis did a painting of three women, all friends, sitting in one of the rooms in Tirrana, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in New Canaan. Behind them on shelves are roadkill specimens. She expects more paintings will result from visits she’s planning to other Wright houses, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
But as of early January, she still wasn’t finished with the Trumps. In her studio, in an upstairs room of her condominium, she showed off the penciled sketch that was the beginning of a roadkill portrait of Melania. She says she felt compelled to do it after Melania wore the coat saying “I Really Don’t Care. Do U” during a visit to an immigration center.
Unlike her portrait of the president, which she kept small as a counter to his grandiosity, Melania’s is to be nearly life-size. She had sketched her prone, Sphinx-like, wearing a fur coat made from roadkill. She starts identifying the animals.
“Some I’ve lifted from old hunting still lives, like these pheasants and pigeons. The baby otter was from the internet. Some are animals I picked up. Oh, that baby rabbit was mine,” she says excitedly. She likely pulled it from the compact freezer immediately behind her easel.
De Angelis is preparing for new shows at the MM Fine Art gallery in Southampton and at the Gary Marotta Gallery in Provincetown, where she’s already had several successful exhibits.
“I didn’t think it would sell. I thought it would be hard to place, she says of her work. “Roadkill to me is a symbol of where humanity is right now. We’re at this crossroads, where we have to learn to live sustainably with animals and nature. We might be the roadkill. We often are. It’s not just the animals. It’s all of us.”
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.