Jason Freeny – The Anatomical Grotesque of Popular Culture Icons

dailydose_darkstrokeToday, we have another piece from Arno Görgen; this time, on the work of Jason Freeny. Arno is a researcher at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. His main research focusses on interconnections between popular culture and biomedical science, esp. on digital games and medicine. His nom de plume on twitter is @pachukipachuki.

Jason Freeny (*1970) is a US American artist who developed a singular style of modern art, pop art and surrealism through the creation of anatomical sculptures of globally known icons of pop culture, like Barbie, Batman, the Smurfs and Lego figures. Freeny originally studied industrial design in New York and, after some years of working as a theatrical designer, joined MTV as a freelance designer in 1997, where he designed and created stage sets, props and custom artworks for several MTV productions (besides others, MTV’s “Rock-n-Jock” series and the “TRL Awards”). In 2002, he started with the first creations of anatomical sculptures and since then, followed this new approach to pop culture with growing success. For example, the Clutter Magazine awarded him the “Break Through Artist” of 2011.

When asking Jason Freeny about how the idea for this specific kind of representation developed, he remembered utilizing balloon animals and robots in his illustration work as early as around 2004. He treated them as living, breathing creatures which led to the idea of an anatomical schematic of a Balloon Dog. From this, his grotesque reinterpretations of iconographic characters with skeletal systems evolved. After the success of the Balloon Dog in his “Pneumatic Anatomica” piece, he started to explore other inanimate characters, like a Gummi Bear or the Gingerbread Man. With the Lego “Micro Schematic” illustration, he worked for the first time with a licensed character. Although he was nervous at first with the possibility that the Lego company could be offended by his work, they actually embraced it.

Anatomical Mario (Modified Vinyl Action Figure). (© Jason Freeny)
Anatomical Mario (Modified Vinyl Action Figure). (© Jason Freeny)

Asked about his favorite pieces, he says he prefers characters which are human, like Mario (the videogame character) and Barbie. In Mario’s case, he appreciated very much how Mario’s skeletal system ended up looking like a small child. He is also drawn to characters with exaggerated features like for example the giant eyes and the tiny jaw of My Little Pony.

Freeny’s sculptures sometimes evoke a feeling of uncanniness as they allow us to see under the familiar surface of popular characters and to glimpse an unfamiliar, biological interior. By allowing to see behind the curtain of this bio-fictional superficiality, they come to live, even become vulnerable. Due to their anatomical similarity to anatomical visualization styles which we all know from school books, science shows in TV or popular science journals, the weird and comic of his sculptures gets replaced with a grotesque realism to which we all can relate. Asked about this, Jason says that people have a deep connection to such characters. His sculptures are a further step of imagining them as a living creatures and friends. In a way, his illustrations and sculptures are just solidifying this connection and bringing the fantasy to life:

We all know from a very early age that we have inner anatomy. It was a fascination to me to see how each body part was designed inside. How joints work, why my ankle has two big hard knots on each side and why my knee only bends front to back and not side to side. As adults we are rediscovering this experience we had as a child by revisiting familiar characters this way, it’s exciting.

His fascination for iconographic characters is a very old one, as he says he never was into story-based characters, never into comics or super heroes. He always has been attracted to iconic characters that stand by themselves without a deeper history behind them. These ahistoric characters result in the stoic, static poses of the sculptures, letting the simplicity of the lone character speak for itself. The idea of his pieces looking like something one would find displayed in a doctor’s office intrigues him.

Barbie Anatomy Model (© Jason Freeny)
Barbie Anatomy Model (© Jason Freeny)

Besides the often eerily static postures, this surrealistic feel of vividness is only possible through the realism of the anatomic construction of the sculptures. Freeny reconstructs the physiology of his characters by starting with the exterior form and then working inwards using the shape or the face and body to dictate the shape of the skeletal system. He usually starts the sculpturing process with the skulls as that is where he thinks the character’s soul lives. Freeny describes this process as intuitive in the sense that he doesn’t know what the insides will look like for most of these pieces until the very moment when they evolve in front of him. In this context, he adds that he rarely sketches, as he feels that sculpting is much more logical in order to work out a form that will ultimately be three-dimensional. He only uses sketches “to jot down an idea or work out composition and placement of elements.” He usually approaches these characters in a process that Freeny calls ‘reverse forensics’, which is a similar process to forensic reconstructions of human faces by recreating muscle placement, skin thickness and other properties.

Originally educated as an industrial designer, he has no medical or anatomical training. Nevertheless, as a visual person, he uses visual aids like books on anatomy. Although the sculptures project a biological realism on mere fictional characters, Freeny is aware that this realistic feel is limited, knowing that his work is not anatomically correct. “But then again, these aren’t living creatures, are they?” he asks. Consequently it is, what David Kirby calls “a perceived realism” (Kirby 2003), in which a fiction is connected with distinct aspects of reality (in Freeny’s case it’s both – anatomical imagery and popcultural iconography) to ‘plausibilize’ the sculpture. Of course at the same time this play with the familiar and placing it in notforessen contexts causes an effect of alienation. Both are two sides of one coin, this ambivalence is a central motor for the fascination with Freeny’s art.

Dissected “Sulley” (© Jason Freeny)
Dissected “Sulley” (© Jason Freeny)

Aside from a few intellectual property owners having issues, the response to his work has been almost entirely positive.  Freeny says that all different type of people have taken interest in his art, including people from the medical field and the medical industry. The sculptures make great additions to their offices of practice. Asked about, why this might be the case, Jason’s thinks, that

medical offices are sometimes scary places, I know they are for me. The addition of art is pretty common in a doctor’s office, anything to calm and distract you, to get your mind off the reality of health. I think these pieces help take one’s minds into a fantasy world for even just a few minutes.

Besides this functional aspect, the exhibition of Freeny’s dissected toys also indicates, how social distinctions and hierarchies between doctors and patients shrink, as seemingly doctor’s increasingly identify with popular culture and dismiss traditional low brow/high brow approaches.

References

Kirby, David A. (2003): Science Consultants, Fictional Films, and Scientific Practice. In: Social Studies of Science 33 (2), S. 231–268.

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