Treasures from the Vault: Dennis McNett’s Retold Tales

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Today’s treasure explores how artists take liberties when referencing old myths in their artworks. We’re all familiar with the Hollywood trope “You think you know the story, but it’s not what you think!” While this can make audiences feel like there are no new stories to tell, reinventing and using old tales actually has a long history. Consider Biblical narratives and Greek and Roman tragedies: these are all ancient stories that artists and writers continually come back to and look at from various angles. Even Shakespeare used this tool! Though he’s widely thought of as a master storyteller, he often used old folklore within his plays, sometimes as an influence and others he reworked into new tales. Here we’ll examine one element of contemporary printmaker Dennis McNett’s work, his “final chapter” of Ragnarok, The Legend of Wolfbat, and why artists continue to retell and reinvent archaic stories.

Renegade printmaker Dennis McNett formed a close relationship with FWMoA during his solo exhibition in the summer of 2015. This relationship came to fruition when McNett made a large archival donation that he adds to each year. McNett’s art and his studio name, Wolfbat Studios, are heavily influenced by the rich narrative legends of Native Americans and Norse mythology. He incorporates these themes in all of his work. By taking the time to truly look at and experience McNett’s work, you’ll be drawn in by his bold use of line and begin to see the story within each print, finding the legend in each of McNett’s subjects.

Part of McNett’s appeal as an artist is his ability to connect with generations both young and old. Through his combination of Native American and Norse symbolism with his bold and graphic style, McNett is able to accomplish the often difficult task for a contemporary artist: attracting a broad, diverse audience. These effects are heightened by his retelling of popular myths and folklore, utilizing stories that have been retold for countless generations.

A screenprint of two wolves faces melding into one, with the claws of one open and extended in front of their faces.
Dennis McNett, American, 1972. Wolfbat. Screenprint, wood, fabric. Gift of Josef Zimmerman, 2018.352. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The Legend of Wolfbat is as example of McNett’s retelling of a Norse myth. The original tale follows Fenrir, or Fenris, depending on your translation, a wolf who was one of the three children of Loki, the Norse god of mischief. McNett has captured Fenrir’s likeness in Wolfbat, a screenprinted tapestry.

As a descendant of Loki, Fenrir was half giant, half god, and feared by the other gods. Fear of Fenrir resulted in the gods tricking him, which left him bound and cast to live beneath the earth. During Ragnarok, the devastating battle over Asgard between the gods and the giants, Fenrir escapes his bonds and hunts down Odin, ruler of the gods and Asgard. During his imprisonment, Fenrir had grown into a massive figure: his top jaw scraped the heavens while his bottom jaw racked the earth. When Fenrir found Odin he devoured him in revenge for his imprisonment, however, soon after Fenrir was killed by Odin’s son Víðarr in an act of vengeance for his father’s murder.

Upon reading of Fenrir’s fate, McNett immediately began imagining a new ending for him. He felt a personal connection to the character and believed he was treated unjustly by the gods. In McNett’s eyes, Fenrir was punished for nothing more than following his nature. Yes, he was a wild wolf with hostile lupine traits, but because of his unfortunate lineage, Fenrir was treated too harshly and subsequently murdered.

Therefore, McNett rewrote the ending. He crafted a new story where Hela, Fenrir’s sister who possessed the power of resurrection, took on a larger role. In the traditional myth, Hela retreats to the underworld to escape Ragnarok, returning to the surface at the end of the war to find her brother’s lifeless, mutilated body. However, in McNett’s retelling, the story has one more chapter: only able to find Fenrir’s head intact, Hela resurrects him with bat wings, enabling Fenrir to finally escape the gods who have relentlessly persecuted him.

Why do artists rewrite stories and legends? They do this for numerous reasons. McNett’s alternate ending to Fenrir’s fate is a metaphor for today’s cultural constructs. He uses this ancient story to parallel our own contemporary world. To McNett, the gods represent corporations, banks, and large conglomerates that define the world for everyday people, who are themselves embodied by the oppressed giants fighting for power and freedom over the gods. Fenrir is the hero of the common man, an individual who is punished for pushing back against societal constructs while searching for a way to make his mark on the world.

McNett also rose from the ashes to remake himself. He has overcome addiction and demons of his own, much like the Fenrir in his retelling. McNett felt a kinship to Fenrir’s persecution, and when he ultimately died, McNett saw it as his duty to resurrect this character to whom he felt such a strong affinity.

Do the liberties that an artist takes with traditional myths lessen their cultural or historical impact? Not at all! Historically, old myths were always being tweaked and retold to fit different generations and regions – this is what happens when shared histories are passed down orally. It was only with the invention of printing that stories began to be regulated and recorded in a lasting medium – and this itself causes confusion! Different regions printed various versions, and once stories are translated from their native language there can be a variety of translations, themselves of differing quality and readability.

When artists such as McNett write their own version of mythology, their changes can make it more relevant for modern cultures and generations. They make them mirror modern morals, highlight details previously glossed over, celebrate traditionally secondary characters, and bring a sense of intimacy to characters with whom they connect. New iterations of a story are merely the next step in a tale’s never-ending journey.

Interested in what other artworks and artists the museum collects? Come see A Year of Making Meaning: New Additions to the Collection 2018, on view through June 9th!

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