Monica Cook ‘Volleys’ between beauty and repulsion

Stop-motion animation from the Georgia-born artist continues her exploration of abrasively attractive bodies

In Monica Cook’s stop-motion animation work Volley, the viewer gets a peek at intimate moments in the lives of a pair of cave-dwelling white monkeys. There are scenes of love, birth, death. It’s tempting to call the film sweet and captivating, except that it is simultaneously repulsive and disturbing. The monkeys are pockmarked with surreal, iridescent growths. We are confronted with bodily functions of fluid and flesh that accompany the typically romanticized themes of love and animal connection. Even more disconcerting is that these terrifying-looking monkeys move and act in a way that reminds us of ourselves. It’s unsettling to think that our bodies have anything in common with these bodies.

Cook, a Georgia-born and SCAD-educated artist, left the South for Brooklyn years ago but continues to exhibit in Atlanta regularly thanks to her representation through Marcia Wood Gallery. Cook’s 2009 Marcia Wood show Seeded and Soiled was dominated by a series of hyper-realistic oil paintings depicting an orgiastic feast, bare bodies tangled with the sloppy flesh of food.

After that exhibition, Cook started working on some sculptures to inspire her next series of paintings. But, “I got so swept up in the sculptures that I haven’t really been painting for the past two years,” she says. Artist/animator Amber Boardman, also represented by Marcia Wood, encouraged her to create a stop-motion animation using the sculptures. That work evolved into her first substantial animation, “Deuce,” which was selected for the Guggenheim’s 2010 YouTube Play exhibition, an innovative biennial that puts work by more traditional fine artists like Cook alongside video mash-ups and other Internet-inspired forms. This weekend’s screening of Volley also includes finalists from the Guggenheim show.

Cook’s materials — plaster, wire mesh, glass beads, fur, resin, teeth, glass eyes, telephone wires, plastic grapes, squeaky toys for dogs — reflect the juxtaposition of the natural world and the human world found in the work. “I would mainly go to dollar stores or walk around in the floral district and collect things that I was drawn to and I would find a way to use those to build the animals,” she says. Cook’s sculptures bring to mind Paul Thek’s meat pieces, beautifully repulsive works that are as startlingly realistic as they are unreal.

Cook says she was drawn to the style of animal documentaries, less focused on full-blown narrative and more interested in “these little glimpses in the animal’s world. You feel like you get to know them.” As part of her research, she visited the zoo to observe the ape exhibit. She says that watching the humans became just as important, especially during moments when the apes’ bodily functions were on full display.

“People would not be able to pull their eyes away, because they wanted to see these monkeys doing these things, but they had to make a big spectacle showing that they didn’t approve of it or that they were grossed out by it. I like that push and pull,” she says.

“Most of the things that I find really interesting or beautiful also can make me uncomfortable,” says Cook. “For me, it’s a very fine line between attraction and repulsion. It’s a good challenge to try make things that are repulsive beautiful and make them palatable in a way for someone to see them with fresh eyes.”