The animals in Laurie Hogin’s new show (opening tonight at Peter Miller) look the viewer in the eye partly because of one of her childhood preoccupations. “One of my favorite questions,” she says, “was ‘What’s it like to be you?’ People would answer, ‘It’s all right, I guess,’ and I would be frustrated. I meant it literally: what is it like to look at the world from behind your eyeballs? In my paintings, animals look at the viewer–the eye contact implies the relationship of one consciousness to another.”

Hogin says she learned to look animals in the eye while roaming the woods adjoining her childhood home in Cos Cob, Connecticut. “I noticed the way the behavior of animals and the growth of fungus would indicate the seasons,” she says. “I learned to identify different plants and animals.” She collected specimens of various kinds and sketched them. She was also fascinated by the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History: “They took me to the idea of stopping time in nature, of cheating death.” When she saw people illegally dumping everything from household garbage to industrial refuse, she says, “it would really piss me off–don’t fuck with my woods. It gave me this sense of them as vulnerable and invaded.” By high school she was an environmental activist.

Hogin mostly quit drawing from nature as an adolescent; it would be more than 20 years before she painted animals again. In the meantime, realizing that art could be about ideas as well as images, she wrote a melodramatic play in high school, taking the lines from advertising slogans. At Cornell University she studied art and cultural anthropology, which she says helped her develop “a critical analysis of visual culture.” She also created parodic posters for nonexistent rock concerts and, influenced by the Mad Max movies, made apocalyptic paintings of junkyards, construction sites, and toxic waste dumps. Though she’d loved 17th-century Dutch paintings and 19th-century Hudson River school landscapes since childhood, eventually she came to connect these styles, with their displays of sublime nature and perfect interiors, with advertising.

Hogin moved to Chicago in 1986 for graduate study at the School of the Art Institute. In March of her final year she was visiting a friend’s studio and discussing feminist theory when her eye fell on a photocopied encyclopedia page on the floor showing rabbits. Thinking of Playboy bunnies, she saw the rabbit as an icon of “what was troubling in the depiction of women’s bodies in the culture.” She did two bunny paintings, and all her paintings since have included animals. At first she drew on 17th- and 18th-century depictions, but gradually her paintings of “angry and weird animals” began to include pop-culture references; in 2000, when her son was born, children’s television and products helped turn her traditional painterly palette “very Day-Glo.”

In 1995 Hogin began painting monkeys, aware that they’ve historically been symbols of lust and imitation. “You put the two together,” she says, “and you have the brand-loyal consumer.” One painting at Peter Miller shows a monkey holding a toothbrush, its red-and-white fur replicating the colors of Colgate packaging. In another, the colors of the sleeping pill Ambien are echoed in a white monkey tipped with red. The show includes 15 monkey paintings from a series called “Allegory of Psychodemographics: 24 Branded Products My Family Uses on a Typical Summer Day.” Another series on view consists of 36 small paintings of reptiles crawling over construction sites, inspired by the McMansions being built outside Urbana-Champaign, where Hogin is chair of painting and sculpture at the University of Illinois. “These monsters are metaphors,” she says, “for the results of converting grade-A farmland to subdivisions.” Her apocalyptic The Last Place on Earth shows a Noah’s Ark-like array of creatures in what she calls the “colors of store shelves.” These animals look like mutants–and Hogin remarks that “some frogs today have Prozac in their systems, and pastoral midwestern farming is really all about serving the fast-food industry.” Of her own creations she says, “The colors of industry and advertising are in the very flesh of these creatures.” They also respresent parts of her own psyche, “including the hardwired desires that could be characterized as ‘reptilian’–scary and potentially destructive.

Laurie Hogin

When: Through 10/14

Where: Peter Miller, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-226-5291

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.