Apocalypse? How! writer Nancy Hightower on the Grotesque

There's a lot of buzz about Plus Gallery's current show, Apocalypse? How! It's grotesque, it's freaky, and it draws on the hysteria about the end of the world!

Nancy Hightower, whose written narrative ties together the work of the four artists (or the four horsemen) featured in the show, recently filled us in on the exhibition's theme: the Grotesque.

I first met Hightower when I enrolled in her writing class at the University of Colorado Boulder called "The Grotesque." I was excited to delve into the dark and the twisted, but at the same time, I was nervous to meet the professor. I started imagining the kind of person who would teach a class like this: She would have long fingernails, dark eyes, a deep voice, and speak iin a morbid way.

But Hightower is nothing like the person I'd pictured. She's bright-eyed, warm and seems to have way too much energy. Not surprisingly, Hightower lectures were far from boring, although I can't say I ever warmed up to that picture of the half-pig-half-human-obese-naked-creature-thing she posted on our class website.

And never got used to the concept of the Grotesque, either. Because, as Hightower says, the Grotesque (as if it's alive) works to throw you off balance.

Click down for Westword's Q&A with Hightower

Westword: A lot of people have preconceived assumptions about the concept of the Grotesque. Can you explain what the Grotesque is all about, from a scholarly perspective?

Nancy Hightower: I think a lot of people, when they use the word "Grotesque," they mean something pejorative, or they mean something that is bizarre, or weird, obscene, gross. The scholarly tradition of the Grotesque, though, is that it is an aesthetic. It is an aesthetic that is used to cause a paradigm shift in the viewer. The way I teach it in my class here at CU is it's a paradigm shift that teaches people to see "the other" in themselves. I see it as a rhetorical value, and so, in other words, the Grotesque is a persuasive act in art, literature and film.

How did you get involved with a study of the Grotesque?

It was almost by accident, because I started teaching the works of Franz Kafka and Flannery O'Connor, and as I was researching this aspect of humor and horror in literature, I stumbled across the theory of the Grotesque. And then I found out that it was actually a theory about the visual arts, first. So that led me more into researching it. I guess I didn't really understand how much of a big scholarly tradition there was -- how many artists back in the 1500s had this aesthetic in their work including writers.

You'd said you saw this Grotesque theme in artists' work back in the 1500s, but is the Grotesque something new in terms of a field of study?

It's coming out more, I think. It's been there but it hasn't been on the academic radar. It's coming on the academic radar but it's under different terms such as "Monstrosity" and "Monster Theory," under umbrella terms of "Transgression" -- things like that. I would say in the past five to ten years, there's new research coming out about it. But there's still no academic field of the Grotesque.

Tell me about your Twitter. I hear you have a famous Twitter following... Lemony Snicket's wife?

Yes, Lisa Brown [laughs]. She has this great book called Picture the Dead that she co-authored with Adele Griffin. So she's very much into "The Ghostly" and "The Gothic." I discovered that we just have an interest in the same kind of art, so it happens that we tend to strike up conversations on Twitter. She tweets really great comics, too, and she does grotesque comic strips, which are really wonderful.

Can you talk about how you got involved with the artists of "Apocalypse? How!"?

I knew Don Fodness. In fact, I lectured in his class with Kim Dickey. So Kim Dickey was doing a graduate course on the Grotesque and so I went into his class to talk a little it about, and since then we've kept in contact. I've been experimenting more with writing about art and catalogue essays and I've written fiction before, for the Denver Art Museum. So with Don, I sat down and I was like, "Well, hey, if you do an art show, I'd love to do some writing for you," and he was talking about doing a show with Ivar who owns Plus Gallery. It was really Don's idea to explore the Apocalypse, and when I found out there were going to be four artists, I thought, "Well, I can play off the idea of the four horsemen and connecting it." It was really this organic idea that just sprung up.

Describe your narrative and how it connects the work of the four artists (horsemen).

My job was to create this narrative that threads them all together. It was on Facebook every week and when you go to the Plus Gallery, it's all up on a wall so you get to read it. I was working on it every week as it went up on Facebook, so it took me about four weeks to write. We wanted to do it in a serial format, which I'd never done before. But I loved writing it. I want to do more of it.

How have people reacted to your narrative and the exhibition when it all came together?

I think people really liked the narrative. I think people saw something new, and an interesting way to tie works together. I think it was a great addition. I went on opening night and the gallery was packed for a few hours straight and it looked like everybody was really having a great time. I was really pleased with the exhibit. Before opening night I had only seen all the works in progress, so to see it all up and framed, it looked really beautiful.

What are you hoping people will take away from the exhibit?

Well, for me, again, the Grotesque always tries to trouble us a bit and ask for a paradigm shift. So I guess with this idea of the Apocalypse, people put it into these spiritual terms as something that happens outside of the human realm. And I guess my narrative kind of asks us to wonder how much of it is actually within our realm; this idea that the four horsemen were actually scared of the Apocalypse because it was coming sooner then they expected. Because the story is that they're the four horsemen but they escaped from the mother of the three fates, and the mother spun the tales about them being the masters of doom and glory. And they're actually artists that are prophetic in their vision of what's going to create the Apocalypse.

And personally, what do you think about the Apocalypse?

So I'm one of these weird people that believes there will be an Apocalypse, but we're going to create it. You know, I mean it's the whole global warming thing -- we're outstripping nature, who cannot believe there is going to be one coming?

Will you continue with a study of the Grotesque?

I actually want to do more of the Fantastic. I think the Fantastic is more beautiful and fun. Sometimes you need a break from the humor and horror. And the Fantastic is the slipstream between real and unreal. It's not fantasy, but it doesn't have to have elements of horror with it and so it can be really beautiful. It still troubles the reader, but in a different way.

What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a catalogue piece for Jenny Morgan. She has a show coming up at Plus Gallery, so I'm writing her essay. And I'm writing for Weird Fiction Review. I write critiques of Grotesque art and analysis every other week. I'm going to go to New York to see if more artists, galleries and museums want me to write because I really love it.

Apocalypse? How! will be on display at Plus Gallery through March 3. Read more about the show here.

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