Whoa, Nessie

Monsters make an Impact at USF.

click to enlarge BIG GIRL: Cameron Gainer's _[ (aka Nessie) emerges from the waters of USF's Lake Behnke. - Courtesy Usfcam
Courtesy Usfcam
BIG GIRL: Cameron Gainer's _[ (aka Nessie) emerges from the waters of USF's Lake Behnke.

Cameron Gainer brings his girls when he comes to town. That's what the 34-year-old, New York-based artist calls two of his sculptures: a full-scale Loch Ness monster (Nessie, for short) and a furry Big Foot.

"There's something feminine about the word Nessie that's always been used to describe that creature," Gainer says. As for Big Foot, "it's because [the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, upon which the sculpture is based] is actually of a female Big Foot, which not a lot of people know. She has breasts."

This month, Gainer's girls grace the campus of the University of South Florida in an unusually playful display of public art. In addition to Nessie, whose official title is _[ (see it as an icon rather than as text), installed at the USF Botanical Garden's Lake Behnke, and Big Foot — titled "Forest Through the Trees" — at USF's Riverfront Park, Gainer showcases a new, specially commissioned artwork at USF's Contemporary Art Museum.

The new piece, titled "IN/OUT," stages a small meteorite's crash landing into the southwestern façade of the CAM building. On the exterior, a pockmarked, purple-blue lump of space rock (made of EPS foam, steel, eurethane, resin-enforced hydrocal and latex paint) violates the CAM's ordinarily austere stone face, appearing to make a serious dent. Inside, Gainer constructs a surreal blue-screen stage where visitors can view their reflections in a jagged mirror shaped like a meteorite-sized hole in the gallery's ceiling — and even photograph themselves at the scene. (BYO camera, of course.)

Beyond a chance to play, Gainer's creations present visitors with an opportunity to ponder the role photography plays in cementing — or disheveling — our convictions. Based on much-disputed film and photographic evidence (frame 352 of the Patterson-Gimlin Big Foot film and the famed Loch Ness monster photograph reportedly taken in 1934 by British gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson), the two earlier sculptures — Gainer's girls — challenge the adage that seeing is believing; the CAM meteorite, not based on a previous photo, deposits the unbelievable in our own backyard.

Last week, Gainer and I sat down for an interview at Tre Amici in Ybor City, just a few blocks from the apartment he has called home since January while completing a residency and teaching at USF.

CL: Are you surprised by the intensity with which people believe in these things?

Gainer: No. That's one of the things that I love about working with these subjects. You know, what I think is beautiful is that humans are passionate .... I don't find it bizarre or strange, and there's never any mocking on my part as far as people who are believers or not believers — because the people who don't believe [have] the very same passion ....

How do you describe your work to people who haven't seen it?

It's easiest to talk about it as public art. To me, it's the idea of trying to make work that a 3-year-old and an 80-year-old can appreciate in the same way. ... The one thing I really love about working with this content is that it's so accessible ... A lot of people who see this work ... are people who are not interested in art, because they feel like there's been a wall built between them and what's happening. You know, "I don't understand what that is" — especially with abstracted work or work that's more complicated to view or takes a certain visual vocabulary. What I'm interested in with this work is absolute accessibility, and then the ideas sort of come afterwards.

[The pieces] end up being participatory, too, because people are going to take their own tourist pictures, souvenirs.

What I love about that is in a lot of ways it's taking an iconic image that had a very particular point of view, and it's taking these images and making the idea of the image almost three-dimensional. You have multiple people shooting from different angles; there's sort of a collected history of all of these pieces from different shots. ... What's great with the Big Foot piece is that people are holding its hand; other people will stand next to it and create that pose. And the poses are never quite [right], because you're trying to imagine what you look like in front of the camera ... When I drove the Loch Ness monster down from Brooklyn to Key West straight through, I think it was 34 hours — it was a long trip. But it's on the back of a small personal watercraft trailer that I modified for it, totally uncovered. It's this gigantic Loch Ness monster driving down the road. I didn't know what people would do on the road, and I was surprised by the fact that they put their hands out the window with their cellphones (to take a picture). So the whole time I was driving, there was this ... flurry of offerings of cellphones to this mythic creature.

I was reading the comments online where the hardcore Big Foot fans will be like, "No, the boobs aren't big enough"?

Yeah, "the face looks like a dog" — that's my favorite one. Then there was another guy, too, who said, "If you've seen one, you know." ... You know what I loved about those comments is that they're so honest ... and they're critical. It's really difficult with work — a lot of people will just say, "Great job, it looks really great," but inside they're like, "What the hell is that? That's ridiculous-looking." Well, these guys had no problem being totally honest with me. I really appreciated that.

Are you ever afraid you're going to be typecast as the monster sculptor?

Well, that's the danger. ... I knew early on, when I started working on the Loch Ness piece, that there was the potential of getting situated in that position, but I've also known that it's not all I'm going to do. ... There are no more monsters in my future that I can speak of. There may be some aliens, but I don't think there are any monsters in the future — but I'll never say never on that.

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