Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dead Ants Make for Strange Art Updated

For a painter in Claremont, Calif., ant is in the eye of the beholder.

That's not a typo: Chris Trueman, 31, has been known to use actual dead ants in his work -- 200,000 of them for one piece alone.

It's a portrait he calls "Self-Portrait With Gun," and features his younger brother dressed up like a cowboy holding his dad's 22-caliber rifle.

"It's based on a real incident," Trueman said.

The portrait is designed to look like an old-timey yellowed photograph, except with hundreds of thousands of harvester ants instead of photographic film.

Chris Trueman made a portrait using 200,000 dead harvester ants.

To Trueman, it represents how humans learn about things abstractly, only to have those impressions change "as we get closer to them."

How do ants fit into the picture?

"Ants are right on the line of what I consider intelligent life," he said. "We see them in the kitchen and we squash them, but if we look at them closely, they are fascinating."

What is also fascinating is how the portrait affected Trueman. The project took a few years to complete, in part because killing the ants made him, well, antsy.

"This is the first time since I was 5 that I deliberately tried to kill nature," Trueman confessed. "When I was that age, a friend of mine and I attacked an anthill for no apparent reason and ended up being bitten by red ants."

When Trueman decided to make his portrait, he initially tried to catch the little creatures himself, but that had its problems.

"Ants are really small in San Francisco, where I was living," he said.

According to FlashNews.com, Trueman decided to order them over the Internet, which played into the theme of not understanding things from a distance.

"I found a guy who raises ants and sells them as horned lizard food," he said. "The lizards need the folic acid. It's an artificial food source. If the lizards were in nature, they could get them from their own diet, but many of these lizards are kept as pets in cities like New York and San Francisco where they are hard to come by."

The man who supplied Trueman with his bug fix initially only sold the ants 1,000 at a time, but made a deal to sell him 40,000 at a time for $500 a pop.

"This wasn't cheap and I was between art projects at the time," Trueman said. "Still, I didn't know how many I'd need for the density."

True to the theme of the painting, Trueman said the idea of ordering the ants was different than when they actually showed up.

"The ants arrived in a large peanut butter jar -- just this huge mass of rising ants," he said. "It was weird. I couldn't set them free. They weren't native to the area and if they bit someone, they would leave welts, and I couldn't feed them, so I had to kill them."

He did this by sticking cotton balls soaked in fingernail polish into a bag holding the ant-rich peanut butter jar.

"They'd die in a couple of minutes and then I'd sprinkle them onto a flat piece of Plexiglas," Trueman said. "Some ants would break apart because they were dried out, and others would be in their full form."

Trueman used the broken-up bugs for large parts where detail wasn't crucial and saved the intact ants for parts that needed detail, applying them with tweezers and a painting resin called galkyd.

"It has a yellowish tinge, which made it look like a yellowing photograph," Trueman said.

Each batch of 40,000 ants took about two weeks to apply, and then Trueman needed a break to "mentally prepare" himself.

"At one point, I stopped for a year," Trueman said. "It took a lot out of me, but, ultimately, I went back to it because I didn't want that first batch to die in vain."

Despite the stress that came from making the portrait, Trueman is happy with the results.

"The way the image is created, you either see the boy in the cowboy hat or the ants, but not at the same time."

So is gallery owner Alexander Salazar, who is exhibiting the work at his San Diego gallery.

"Some artists do things for shock value, but this piece is pleasing to the eye," Salazar said. "Plus, I'm from Texas, so I relate."

But what raised his antenna was Trueman's story behind the portrait.

"At first, I thought he bought dead ants, and when I found out he had to kill them, the piece became about the journey -- the dance that artists go through when doing the painting."

Salazar says the ant portrait is getting raves from people, and, accordingly, has priced it at $35,000.

"The goal isn't that someone will buy it for themselves, but put it in front of the public," Salazar said. "That's why it is in my front window."

It is truly one of a kind and Trueman says it will stay that way.

"I don't want to kill any more ants," he said.

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