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Quirky ceramic artwork examines the alien abduction experience

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WHAT IT IS: False Memory Syndrome I, by Winnipeg artist Kevin Stafford, is a wonderfully weird take on "a close encounter of the fourth kind." Now on view at aceart, the small ceramic work is part of Distributary, a show of seven artists who use ceramics to examine social ideas and issues while exploring the outer limits of their medium.

WHAT IT MEANS: There's a deliberate, detailed realism in Stafford's style, in the way the hard ceramic surface replicates the yielding softness of the pillow and mattress, for example. Stafford's content, on the other hand, is skewed -- a mash-up of muscle mags and pulp sci-fi and an appealingly odd, unpredictable vibe.

While the work has a comic edge, its title, False Memory Syndrome I, signals Stafford's serious, skeptical take on the alien abduction scenario.

Carl Sagan once said that "many of the principle advocates of UFO abduction seem to want the validation of science without submitting to its rigorous standards of evidence."

Many scientists believe that alien abduction experiences are hallucinations brought on by a near-sleep mental state in which one feels physically paralyzed and menaced by a malevolent presence. (In other places and other periods, one finds tales that parallel alien encounter stories, except the place of the alien is taken by a seductive succubus, a ghost, a demon or a witch. In Newfoundland folklore, it's "the old hag" who sits on your chest and steals your breath.) Other researchers regard the experience as a contemporary form of hysteria, with alien abduction accounts coming from false memories that are "recovered" through exposure to similar narratives.

Stafford plays up the erotic angle in his odd little scenario, making the point that alien abduction accounts often seem to hinge on anxieties of a sexual nature. (How else to explain all that anal probing?) There's something suggestive and soft porn-y about the tanned, muscled man who lies spread-eagled on the bed, the pattern of his leopard-print briefs making a connection to the feline alien that stands over him.

The space-cat is a bit unexpected. In contemporary North America, most alien mythology exists in a closed loop of X-File-ish influences, in which pop culture shapes ideas about aliens, which in term shape alien abduction accounts, which in turn shape pop culture. Despite a universe of possibilities, the depiction of aliens in encounter stories is generally limited. (There are the "Reptilians," the "Small Greys," the "Tall Greys," the "Nordics.")

Maybe that's why Stafford makes up his own version, which seems to combine a real cat with a cartoon cat, along with some standard "extra-terrestrial" features (those slanted, blank, black eyes). It could also be that Stafford just likes cats: He explores the elegant lines of (non-alien) cats in other works.

WHY IT MATTERS: You can see why an artist would be fascinated by the alien abduction experience: A person hallucinates, but the hallucination takes a form that comes from the fears and dreams of the modern world. The alien abduction experience can be seen as an encounter between an individual psychological state and shared cultural expression.

It's kind of like art that way.

Distributary, which is curated by Chris Pancoe and sponsored by the Manitoba Crafts Council, runs until Sept. 3 at aceacrt, 2-290 McDermot Ave.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 G8

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