More Cheese, Please

story by Mia Fineman

Ever wondered what goes through the minds of copulating mice? Adam Stennett can tell you.

Adam Stennett shares his tiny studio in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with up to 36 mice at a time - but finding a good exterminator is the last thing on his mind. Far from being pests, these mice are indispensable collaborators in Stennett’s artistic process. For the past five years, he has been making elegant, hyper-realist paintings based on photographs he takes of live mice in various staged scenarios; creeping down an ivy-covered wall, crouching on the rim of a toilet seat, being squeezed by the gloved hand of a medical researcher.

“Whether we like it or not, mice are part of human life,” says Stennett. “We’ve never been able to build the perfect mousetrap, so we’ve always had to find way to live alongside them.” The well-cared-for mice in Stennett’s studio live in a spacious glass tank, where they quietly go about their business, taking turns on the exercise wheel, nibbling on grains and seeds, napping together in an warm furry heap.

The mice in Stennett’s painting are either cute or menacing, depending on how you feel about small, beady-eyed rodents with long, ropey tails scurrying through spaces that are recognizably our own. He often stirs up our sympathy for his wee protagonists by placing them in dangerous or precarious situations. In one painting, a mouse explores the inside of a microwave oven; in another, three mice confront the fierce, yellow-eyed stare of a black cat. But sympathetic or not they can also get a little too close for comfort, as in My Girlfriend’s Toothbrush (2002), a painting of three mice perched on a bathroom shelf, just inches away from an unprotected toothbrush.

People often mistake the black and brown mice in his paintings for rats—a confusion Stennett cultivates. When choosing models, he looks for mice with an “ambiguously ratlike” appearance, and then plays up this resemblance by enlarging and emphasizing their scaly, hairless tail. “I’m interested in making paintings that are beautiful, but that also push back a little, “ he explains. “I want my work to give people a little shove out of their comfort zone, to encourage them to take a second look at things that are all around us, but that we usually prefer to ignore.”

Stennett, who is 33 years old and not particularly mousey himself, has sandy-blond hair, bright blue eyes, and an earnest, easygoing manner. Born in Alaska, he grew up in rural Oregon, where he spent his bucolic youth catching frogs and snakes. After college, he decided to move to New York, because that’s where one goes to become an artist. A few hours after he arrived in the city, he was mugged; the day he moved into his first apartment, he was held up at gunpoint. Things got a little better after that. He started working odd jobs for galleries and contractors, then spent a few years as an assistant to art star Damian Loeb.

Soon, Stennett’s suave, skillful paintings began to attract a small following. In 2004, he had his first solo show at 31Grand, a gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As part of the installation, he lined the gallery’s ceiling with clear PVC pipes into which he released about 20 mice. Some visitors were horrified when they noticed the rodents scurrying a few feet overhead; others refused even to enter the gallery. But the show was a big hit with local kids, who would line up outside the gallery on weekend mornings, fascinated by this close-up view of urban wildlife.

Lately, Stennett has also been making videos, like “Mouse Swimming Overhead” (2004), a hypnotic, ten-minute piece incorporating slowed-down footage of a mouse swimming in a pool of water, with paddling paws and an undulating tail, accompanied by a soothing, gurgling soundtrack. His upcoming show at 31Grand, which opens September 9, will feature a new video, “The Negotiation” —a larger-than-life-size projection of two mice negotiating the terms of copulation. (OK, we’ll do it your way, but we’re leaving the lights on this time.)

After years of intentionally sharing his space with rodents, Stennett has developed an abiding affection for his diminutive friends. He often paints with a mouse perched on his shoulder or curled up in the pocket of his sweatshirt; sometimes they’ll burrow under his clothes, creeping up and down his arms as he works. “The only downside," he says, “is that mice have no bladder control.”

Adam Stennett, Underwater Mouse 1, 2003, oil on linen, 72"x72". Courtesy of 31Grand, Brooklyn

MIA FINEMAN writes about art for The New York Times, Slate, and V. She is the author of When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand (HarperCollins, 2000), and has published essays on Walker Evans, Richard Avedon, Gabriel Orozco, Sean Scully, and others. Mia investigates Adam Stennett's obsession with rodents on page 78. She is currently working on a book about monkeys.


Source: Fineman, Mia, Of mice and men: rodents say cheese for artist Adam Stennett, Black Book, Progressive Culture, No. 40, State of the Arts, September 2005, p. 78-79 (illus: Underwater Mouse 1, 2003 by Adam Stennett).