The Animals Look Back at Us
Saturday, September 21st - Sunday, October 20th 2013
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 21st 6-8pm
Curated by Sara Lynn Henry
"For the first time in the history of art, the animals look back at us in art imagery. Their gaze is direct, an immediate address, a one-to-one relationship. The animals are fully present in all their living wholeness, vulnerability, intensity, and even ferocity. Rather than merely there for our admiration or projected needs, they are their very own being. The artists in this exhibition are in the vanguard of a new movement, which by resonating with the inner life of animals, is opening up a vital dialogue with our fellow sentient being."
Sara Lynn Henry, independent curator and art writer, also Professor of Art History, Emerita, and N.E.H. Distinguished Teaching Professor of Humanities, Emerita, Drew University.
Terri Amig, George Boorujy, Catherine Chalmers, Stella Chasteen, Sue Coe, Lee Deigaard, Mary Frank, Jan Harrison, Gillian Jagger, Nina Katchadourian, Isabella Kirkland, David Marell, Christy Rupp, Alan Siegel, Janice Tieken, Eva van Rijn, Jess Wallace.
THE ANIMALS LOOK BACK AT US
Sara Lynn Henry
Over the past decade, a new phenomenon has emerged in terms of the portrayal of animals in art. For the first time in the history of western art, animals are looking directly at us. In fact, they are looking “back” at us, returning, as it were, our gaze. This encounter has become the central subject in the work of several artists whose works you see in this exhibition. In traditional art over thousands of years—Ancient Egyptian, Medieval, Old Master, Nineteenth Century-- animals were presented to be admired, described, and configured within the needs and rhythms of humans (as some would say we “human animals”). Now these creatures gaze back and are fully present in all their life, energy, vulnerability, even ferocity. In avant-garde art there is now emerging a deep connection with nature on many fronts. This is a radical counter-current to the dominant Art World preoccupation with the everyday self (think Facebook), media surfing, and multi-dimensional virtual worlds. There is in fact a nature underground just breaking through the surface, bringing with it a radical experience of wonder and concern.
We can ask what it means when an animal looks at us. One way to think about this is to consider the analogy of people looking directly at one another. Such circumstances are, in fact, more rare than we might think. Such mutual gazing can be the result of a question, a surprise, or of a desire or need for something. At times, it may also indicate a moment of deep intimacy when we wish to merge with someone else, somehow. There is as well the commanding look of strength, even power. And when this strength is unequal, when it overwhelms the object of the gaze, and there is no listening, the hard look is one of control. The diminished object of the gaze is unable to assert its own being.
The artists in this exhibition are involved in a more open and empathetic conversation. In these works there is what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou relationship, instead of an I-It. The artists respond to the animals out of their own internal resonances with them.
Why Now? Animal Presence. Animal Consciousness.
The artists here are acutely aware of how our environment is changing. In some sense this awareness drives a new empathy for the animals. Nature experiences, especially for the younger generation, are neither as frequent, nor as direct as they used to be. It is also true that the presence of animals in our surroundings is diminishing due to habitat loss and environmental stress. The population of many of our best loved birds has already plummeted by 80%, monarch butterflies are drastically declining, 90% of large ocean fish are gone, coral reefs, home to hundreds of fish species, are dying. Of the big guys, only c. 750 Mountain Gorillas and fewer than 3,500 tigers remain. Every hour four species disappear and fifty acres of forest are lost globally. Yes, this is a crisis that is beginning to penetrate our consciousness.
At the same time the sciences have begun extensive studies that are lending to the admission of the existence of animal consciousness and animal emotions parallel or equal to that of humans. Before that, up until the late 1960s biological research, even for chimpanzees, assigned each animal a number to guard against giving them personality. Personality, mind, and emotions were argued as uniquely human attributes. Then in the late l960s and in the 1970s, more and more biologists went into the field and started long term studies on all sorts of species—apes, monkeys, elephants, dolphins, birds, and more. These studies have revealed that animals have more complex behavior and higher mental abilities than was previously admitted. Of course, anyone who lives with a companion animal knows that animals have distinct personalities and rich emotional lives. In recent decades systematic studies have shown that, varying by species, animals are capable of flexible memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self awareness and the full range of emotions.
These discoveries continue to chip away at the sense of human exceptionalism, which has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Countering this notion of human exceptionalism was Darwin’s evolutionary perspective, which maintains that there is a developmental continuity between animals and humans. Many comparative anatomical, studies and more recently behavioral studies have demonstrated this. Last year, finally, neurological proof was set forth by a prominent group of neuroscientists in The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (July 7, 2012). They declared that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates [i.e. neurological equipment] that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these substrates.” So a changed perspective and proof in the sciences are arriving at the same time as we find changed portrayals of animals in the art.
So what about the art in this exhibition? Although potentiated by an environmental awareness, the art here is not, for the most part, overtly polemical, but rather results from the personal encounters with animals by each artist in their woods, on farms, in homes, traveling and yes, sometimes where animals are bartered. Some artists also explore naturalist and ecological film and literature. The result in each case is a one-to-one interaction with the animals’ own being. Two modes of works have evolved, one where there is a direct animal gaze, and second where the animal asserts itself, not primarily through look, but rather through its own potent, living presence. Inherent in all of these are certainly the larger issues of our relationship to our fellow creatures.
The Animals Which Look Back at Us
In the art, animals both wild and domestic look back at us with different modulations of gaze. The wild gaze is direct, powerful, unblinking, whereas the domestic is more intimate and ingratiating. Jan Harrison’s Big Cat - Mountain Lion with Foliage Fur, 2011 (cover) looks at us with eyes of pure light, as if from its own world, or in fact from an otherworldly place. The fangs are fierce, the nose blunt, the coat laced with the subliminal foliage of nature. The eyes are windows into the Cat’s inner being and perhaps conversely into our own being.
By contrast we can closely approach Gillian Jagger’s domestic White Cow, 2009 (Fig. 2). We can stroke its curved snout, touch its soft nose, and look closely into its raised, almost sad eyes. Tremendous life-energy swirls of the cow’s hair grace its eyes and head. Jagger’s cow, Wonder (2009), is seen up-close from the side, showing one eye looking through the delicate “cross” of a confining wire fence. Jagger has a deeply caring resonance with her creatures. Other domestic animals in the animal art have a fuller body presence. Terri Amig’s ram (Wired, 2012, Fig. 1) is quite grand with its spiraled horns and thick fleece in muted rainbow hues. Amig loves the domestic animals because they are large, peaceful, and approachable.
It is harrowing to see that any animal can be constrained and mistreated. Sue Coe’s ape in her Upper and Lower Primates, 1997 (Fig. 4) has to look away from us, because of an act reflected in its left eye—three humans are restraining another ape as if to capture or misuse it. One can certainly ask here who are the upper and who are the lower primates. Coe’s brave and unflinching works usually document the cruelty inflicted by humans upon animals--in order to call forth our protest.
Transcending all categories is George Boorujy’s Thunder, Perfect Mind, 2012 (Fig. 11). An immense black doe is so close, full face, intensely in our face. Textured hair, pebbled nose, veined ears, and translucent eyes are meticulously rendered to be all of a piece. The encounter is riveting, more real than the real, thereby transcending the real. It takes one’s breath away by the sheer intensity of the existence of being. The image carries the power of its name, the title of an ancient likely second century poem, The Thunder, Perfect Mind. The poem in part reads: “…and I have come to those who reflect upon me, and I have been found by those who seek after me. Look upon me, you who reflect upon me, and you hearers, hear me. You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves. And do not banish me from your sight….”
The Wild Ones
Some animals connect with us through their intense presence, rather than through direct gaze. Most often these are the wild ones, creatures in their natural state, whom we might want to meet in the wild, the mountains, the sea, on safari, maybe in nature films, or even in a naturalized zoo. Sometimes these creatures are in our backyard or even in our home! Artists dialogue with them in ways that are different in degree from those of straight, descriptive natural photography. Artists can accentuate the things that the animals tell them; they can more directly interact with inner life, and can discover and create signs of significance. Mary Frank’s Monkey (2006, Fig. 5) seems to leap into the blue, spreading immense hands and feet, trailing its prehensile tail. Its body is patterned by the artist with shapes of strength and structure and moving energy, which extend all the way into the head. Though it has its own electric being, there is no doubt regarding the evolutionary kinship with humans. Stella Chasteen’s ceramic Zebra Baboon (2012, Fig. 6) characteristically crouches and turns towards us, arching its tail, its body enhanced by invented zebra stripes that create a staccato of many moments of coordinated action.
Some artists go on safari to Africa, captivated by the richness of disappearing animal life. David Marell makes direct sketches from a moving vehicle, capturing the movements of the animals in graphic lines of motion. These gestural lines can quickly shape the round tummy, the zigzag legs, the grand hind end and the forward momentum of a celebratory elephant (Elephant, 2012, Fig. 7). Eva van Rijn on her 2009 African trip viewed leopards “on a grassy hillside, basking in the morning sun.” From her many photos, she has constructed her own invented version of Leopard Love (2009, Fig. 9), in part to suggest the continuum of the emotional life of animals with ours. For the full environmental abundance of natural life we can look to Isabella Kirkland’s Nova Series images of rainforest floor, understory, Canopy (2008, Fig. 10) and emergent top. These are images of hope and ecological significance, filled with approximately life-sized fauna and flora that have been discovered only in the last 20 years! It is probable that only 10 to 15% of all earth species have yet been scientifically discovered, studied, and given Latin names. There is more out there that we realize, though habitat is drastically shrinking. Kirkland sets down the vivid truth of each species by the lush use of scientific illustration as sources for her depictions, along with seeing what she can of these species. Interestingly, in each of her vast images there is one creature which looks back at us, thereby becoming a center of consciousness within the rainforest.
What happens when the wildlife comes into our backyard? We see them, they see us. Sometimes we receive just the fleeting imprint of their presence, such as Gwynn Murrill uses for her sculptures. Murrill takes this imprint on her mind/eye and then sculpturally hones it for hours to get the right balance of animal shape and living gesture, as in her Coyote I Maquette, 2008 (Fig. 8). Lee Deigaard’s images are more chancy. She sets up the kind of camera that hunters use to track the movements of their game, cameras that are triggered by motion, recording the day and time of a visitation. Even at night such a camera goes snap to capture impromptu appearances of such as raccoons or deer. Deigaard’s startled raccoon stares back with eyes of pure discs of light, asking What is Going to Happen? (2009-2010, Fig. 3). The question comes up as to who is trespassing on whom in these backyard circumstances.
The wild ones can also be in our home, for at base our dogs, cats, and birds are all wild creatures. Many of us discover this to our surprise. Jan Harrison’s sculptured cat releases the wild abandon of I Am Happy With Teeth and Claws (2008, Fig. 12).
The extremities of the animal kingdom are the furthest points of existence, and like other parts of the animal world, places of beauty, danger and necessity. We come to the smallest of organisms, which are beyond our immediate purview. In the art, frogs, insects, and microorganisms are all subject to the wonders of close-up contemplation and to the drama of the necessities of survival—the injunction to eat or be eaten. Janice Tieken gives us her stunning moth (Naked Lunch, Sir Moth, 2010, Fig. 13) found caught in a spider web, still whole. She gently detached it to make a luminous, digitally-enhanced photograph. We can see all the parts, some for the first time, such as feather antennae, scrolls, and translucent wings. Nina Katchadourian is less interested in the found prey and more in the notion of an “uninvited collaboration” with the spider. For two months one summer on a Finnish Island, she set out to repair broken spider webs, some seemingly abandoned, with red sewing thread, starch and glue (Mended Spider Web #8 [Fish Patch], 1998, Fig. 14). The spiders, it seems, did not appreciate this and invariably cut out her weavings overnight, repairing the web themselves. This is certainly one of nature’s “back-at-ya’s,” i.e. don’t mess with me.
Catherine Chalmers invented more elaborate scenarios of amazement and survival in her Food Chain project and subsequent cockroach series. Over several months she raised gorgeous turquoise tobacco hornworm caterpillars and elegant praying mantis’s to enable and photograph their eating cycle—caterpillars joyously dive into red tomatoes, a mantis champs into a caterpillar, which squirts tomato (Caterpillar Eating a Tomato, 2000 Fig. 15), and the whole sequence is finished off by a handy frog who swallows the mantis. We do not want to look at this but are fascinated. Chalmers uses a pristine white ground to bring this drama out of a natural setting and into our gallery-going lap.
More directly an Eco-Artist, Christy Rupp, wishes to raise concerns about the ecological balance within nature in the face of human intrusions. Her works both fascinate us in their own right and lead out to larger issues. Up the wall are her sculptures of Microscopic Filter Feeders, Residing in the Gulf of Mexico (2011-12), which are magnified depictions of various real microorganisms, such as the species Sea Squirt, Crab Zoa, and Brittle Star. Such micro-creatures form the plankton eaten by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish, which are then eaten by humans. From the Gulf waters, their source of nutrients, these microorganisms are taking in bits of oil and chemical dispersants, used to remove the 2010 oil spill from sight. Such toxins will move up the food chain to hyper-accumulate in the fat cells of large fish and humans with deleterious results. As such our own misdeeds will be visited back upon us. Rupp’s Great Auk, Iceland. Last Pair Killed 1844 (2007, Fig. 16) is piquant and poignant, created out of fast food chicken bones. We learn that this sculpture replicates the skeleton of a species of which the last pair was killed in 1844.
When the animals look back at us in this imagery, it is a stunning experience. Such interactions are personal, non-verbal, and by their nature primal. The creatures are understood as other and autonomous. They are part of their own domain, whether singled out or in full exotic habitat; whether in our backyard, or under the microscope. They can present us with questions and complex situations. There can be nobility, joy, suffering and matters of survival. But most of all these creatures are emissaries of life and the life force.
Eva van Rijn