Cat Grey Dissects How to “Own the Nightmare”

By Lisa Kinoshita

Cat Grey's nightmarish "SpiderHorse" tacked up with the remains of a lady's antique sidesaddle.
Cat Grey’s nightmarish “SpiderHorse” is tacked up with the remains of a lady’s antique sidesaddle.

Now on exhibit at the Woolworth Windows is Acataphasia Grey‘s most wickedly clever effort to date, “Own the Nightmare”. This installation is Grey’s stated attempt to disarm the subconscious terrors and monstrosities that occur in sleep by materializing them with her own bare hands. Inside the window at 11th & Commerce, her life-size, belligerently grotesque “SpiderHorse” (created last year for the AMC “competitive taxidermy” reality show, Immortalized) wakens strange intimations indeed. Two quotes about dreams neatly lend themselves as bookends for this work.

Taking apart the subconscious. Photo: Gabriel Brown

The first is from 19th-century writer and author of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed – my dearest pleasure when free.” The second is from four-star general Colin Powell: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” With a studio stocked with her trademark dead animal parts and antique curiosities awaiting assignment, Grey has the poetic imagination and temperament to drag the most wild-eyed nightmare bucking and rearing into the light of day. But, also the disciplined vision of a military man, one whose first words uttered in the crib might’ve been “No guts, no glory.”

Grey explains that SpiderHorse grew out of a competitive challenge on Immortalized; her assignment was called, “Your Worst Nightmare”.

A loathsome character. Photo: Gabriel Brown
Grey attempted to outgross the competition on “Immortalized”, a reality show. Photo: Gabriel Brown

First, she tweezed the concept of mare out of “nightmare” for her project. Then, “in order to embrace the theme I tried to make sure there was something horrible in there for everyone, no matter who. Aren’t scared of spiders? Fine, I have more for you. How about things with pincers? How about too many eyes [SpiderHorse has four], and eyes looking out through stitches? Skin staples – anyone who has seen them on a loved one while waiting for them to wake up in the ER should appreciate that one…Smaller spiders are boiling up from under the back of the couch (ever worried about what can hide in the cushions)? How about the fact that this horrendous thing is in your space, where it clearly does not belong?” Ok, ok, we get the point. Grey says the installation will continue to evolve (replicate? fester? pustule?) over the next three months.

The parallel with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley goes further. Like SpiderHorse, the British writer’s literary classic, Frankenstein, was the product of an intense competition – this one famously between artistic friends encamped for a holiday in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva. The group included her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; a physician, John Polidori; and Lord Byron, who proposed that rather than trade supernatural tales around the fire at his villa over the long summer, they lift their pens and “each write a ghost story.”

According to Mary Shelley, who was 18 at the time, “It proved a wet, ungenial summer [sound familiar, Tacomans?], “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”. To her dismay, inspiration eluded her. Finally, after several days ruminating she was terrorized by the morbid appearance of a “waking dream”, one involving a dead creature that is re-animated through the hubris-driven experiment of a scientist, Doctor Victor Frankenstein: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” The rest is history. (Gentle Reader: please note that in time-honored fashion, the book is better than the movie. In fact, it’s a great read and considered a seminal work of both Gothic literature and science fiction.)

Walk fast, don't look. Photo: Gabriel Brown
Walk fast, don’t look. Photo: Gabriel Brown

Back to the present. While Shelley’s protagonist, Doctor Frankenstein, creates a gentle, sentient and utterly spiritually dependent being yet at whose first breath he is instantly revolted and rejects; Grey, on the other hand, takes prideful ownership of her likewise sewn-together spawn, and gleefully exults it in an overripe way: “I actually skinned a vintage sidesaddle and placed [it] on top” to symbolize owning the nightmare, she says.

“I also celebrated the beauty of the macabre through opulence”; exquisite background props such as a “real Persian carpet, the gorgeous loveseat and fine tea cups all speak of my decadent sensibilities. And highlighting aspects with jewels (the skull heads of the spider babies, the mandibles and ovipositors, as well as specific areas of stitching) draws attention to what I find most beautiful.” Clearly, this is not a woman afraid of turning off the lights (or unsuspecting passersby). Creepy dreams? Just tickle them under the chin.

What’s next for Grey? “I just started working with an individual in Paris who wants me to design a [wearable] ensemble from ballistic carbon nanotube fabric. That’s bullet-proof stuff to you and I! I think the bullet-proof ballgown will be all the rage for the 2014 holiday season. Don’t you?” Catch “Own the Nightmare”, Cat Grey’s installation at the Woolworth Windows, 11th & Commerce, through April 14, 2014.