“Manifest Destiny,” one of the paintings in Ahren Hertel’s exhibition Sticks and Stones, depicts a young woman astride an American bison. She’s dressed in contemporary clothes, and her face is stoic. Her hands, raised above her head, clutch a stick—thicker than a twig, but not quite a club—as though she might swing down and clobber the animal at any moment. The distant expression on her face conveys not anger or remorse, but a casual thoughtfulness, as if the decision to attack a once endangered animal were as unimportant as choosing a brand of peanut butter at the grocery store.
Modern consumers are often indirectly complicit in environmental destruction. Hertel cites the example of a potato chip company that stopped using recyclable bags because consumers complained the bags were too noisy. In Sticks and Stones, Hertel presents images of individuals directly threatening birds and animals.
“As individuals, we would never take sludge and throw it in a creek,” says Hertel. “But essentially, companies we support do that all the time.”
All of the paintings depict young, 20-something women threatening animals with sticks or stones. Hertel made the decision to only use female models because there are so many actual images—photographs—of men clubbing seals and other animals. Hertel says his paintings are intended to be somewhat fantastical and metaphorical—and images of men attacking animals would seem too realistic.
With their detailed, careful rendering, many of the paintings are rooted in the traditions of portraiture.
“But they’re not portraits,” says Hertel. “Portraits present the subjects as individuals. … In these paintings, the people are stand-ins for ideas.”
The subjects are presented in heroic poses—“like a hunter, a CEO, or a general,” according to Hertel—and physically dominant over the environment. The background landscapes appear small and insignificant.
The landscapes and wildlife are distinctly Western. Hertel says he enjoys being an artist with regional concerns.
“I’ve never understood why a Nevada artist would want to paint a giraffe,” he says.
Many of the titles of the paintings are taken from the rhetoric surrounding manifest destiny—the 19th century idea that it was somehow divine providence that the United States of America should conquer the entire landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was a blatant case of humans exerting dominance over the environment.
Sticks and stones were among the earliest tools used by primitive man—turning nature back onto itself. And they’re also weapons of childhood—little boys pick up sticks and pretend they’re guns or swords. It’s surreal to see adult women with emotionless expressions behaving like little boys with anger issues: In “A Natural Course of Events,” a woman looks primed to pitch a rock at a dove. In “We Are Met on a Great Battlefield”—the title comes from the Gettysburg Address—another woman is on the verge of punching a bear in the face.
Though the women all have passive expressions, the paintings are filled with tension because they are forever on the verge of violence.