Tucked away in an unassuming Logan Square apartment building is a portal to another world. Populated by frog-human hybrids and pregnant suicide goddesses, among other creatures, this strange alternate universe sprang into existence when artist Daniel Robles moved in and the contents of his rich imagination began leaking into our more-pedestrian reality. A far cry from the bourgeois milieu of coffee houses and brewpubs just outside, this world has higher stakes: existential questions of life and death, what is human and what is not, hang thick in the air.
A recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Robles is a sculptor, mixed media artist, and puppeteer. The bizarre and surreal creations that inhabit his apartment draw inspiration from zoology, science fiction, Mayan mythology, and transhumanism. Originally from Mexico City, he cites his parents’ careers as formative in the development of his style. His mother was a medical researcher and his father a surgeon.
“My mother used to bring me to her laboratory,” he explained. “We would see these rats and mice … that had tumors. My father always showed us photographs of tumors from his surgeries. So I was very drawn to bodies.
And then my uncle started teaching us papier-mâché when we were little. He started bringing us all this information about animals, from National Geographic. I love animals and evolution. Most of my stuff is inspired by what could be or what was—hybrids.”
Robles clearly loves his imaginary menagerie. Warm and animated, he gestures around him at creatures constructed from a wide range of materials: wood and ceramic, latex and metal, organic materials and found objects. Pinned to the wall and arrayed on his desk are pictures of some of the stranger products of evolution—inspiration for future projects. Monkeys and sea creatures share space with pop culture ephemera and primitive masks. And then there’s the hank of human hair, multi-colored strands bunched together and casually hung in a corner.
Expounding upon his aesthetic, Robles said, “I love animals. [It’s] my idea of how in a parallel universe or with genetic modification … we had evolved … or maybe we had mixed all of these genes and created something else.”
Several recent projects were inspired by amphibians. One, initially conceived of as an animatronic Flintstones-style living doorbell, looks much like a pink, humanoid frog, with fleshy lips protruding over a pair of tiny hands. Robles molded it from silicone and then painted it. The skin tone is almost disturbingly realistic, as are the human hairs sprouting from its behind. (Hence: the hair bouquet, donated by various friends. Everything is material to Robles.)
Silicone is a favorite medium of his at the moment. Robles first sculpts his creation in clay or another material, and then uses that to create a mold, into which he pours liquid silicone—a process that may take several weeks, start to finish. He’s enamored of the material’s flexibility and its similarity, when painted with special silicone paint, to human skin.
“The silicone has a transparency,” he said. “You can add different layers.”
Another sculpture also resembles a frog, though this one has a smaller head and is covered, in the style of a freshly showered gremlin, with translucent bubbles containing tiny fetuses.
“This guy is supposed to be an idea of the future, where instead of giving birth, you would go to a farm. Scientists are farming [babies] using these genetically modified human creatures,” Robles explains. “You’d inject the zygote into the skin [and] the baby [would] start feeding from the blood.”
Robles is captivated by transhumanism and post-humanism, philosophies that test the boundaries of what it is to be a Homo sapiens in a world where genetics and robotics have the potential to shape the evolution of our species.
He cites the example of Australian artist Stelarc, who grew a [non-functional] ear on his arm with the idea that a microphone, to be inserted later, would allow others to hear through it.
“Some of the works are inspired by human relatedness,” he said “Why are we are the way we are? What it is to be human? What is a monster? The idea of the other.”
On the floor beneath the gestating frog is an array of disembodied ceramic heads. Simultaneously reptilian and human, the hyper-realistic noggins look equally likely to hiss or to speak. For all of their strangeness, though, his creatures look like they’d be as jolly as he is. Monsters they may be, but the amiable smiles playing at their lips and their bovine eyes suggest that they’re monsters of the most benign sort.
Photos: Paulina Fadrowska
Robles has several ideas on how he wants to display them to the public.
“I want to see them alive, maybe in a film. Or maybe static, like in a museum,” he muses. “People [would] walk by and think, is it real, is it not?”
He’s also keen on puppetry. Many of his pieces are made to move—either as traditional puppets or as figures used in stop motion animation.
“When I was little, my father took us to the Cirque du Soleil,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ The idea of world-making—I instantly fell in love. I started making my own different world.”
One figure, an alien, features in a short film he made of the creature landing on a foreign planet. In the moody, atmospheric vignette, the tentacled figure emits otherworldly groans… all recorded by Robles himself in a bathroom. Another homunculus, this one sporting a distended, pregnant belly, is a representation of Ixtab, the Mayan goddess of suicide by hanging. Robles used her in a feature about a man who, tempted by her exhortations to self-harm, nonetheless fall in love with her, and after committing suicide, becomes a child in her womb.
“You can tell very dark stories with puppets,” he chuckles. “Life always comes with death.”
One of his current projects takes a particularly meta approach to conveying its message. He has rendered a cochineal—a type of scale insect that infests the nopal cactus—in wood and plans to paint it with dye made from the dead insects themselves and then apply gold leaf.
“It was almost like gold when the Spanish were selling it,” he said of the dye’s export to Europe. The piece will be a commentary on colonialism and the European commodification of the traditional pigment, which was all the rage in Venice at the time.
Robles has thoughts of taking his more photogenic creations to Los Angeles and exhibiting them there, in the hopes of attracting an internship in the film industry. Getting out there will be no small task, though.
“If you’re an actor, you have to grab your suitcase. If you’re a sculptor, you have to grab your whole house,” he laughs.
But for now, the portal in Logan is still open and the peculiar populace of Robles’ speculative cosmos waits just inside.