a still from Chalmers’ Safari.
George Arts Project, Courthouse Gallery, through Aug. 14
Animals are everywhere: as pets, on the grass margins of our
highways, and as meat on a dinner plate. Over the past few
decades, theorists from Peter Singer to Donna Haraway have
convincingly argued that how we relate to animals is crucially
important morally. Many have pointed out that we humans are
also animals. Artists have always been fascinated by animals’
beautiful and varied forms, and increasingly, animals have
taken a central place in art, often as symbols of environmental
Lake George Arts Project tackles animal themes for a second
time—their first show about animals, Zoo: Artists Look
at Animals, was in 2005—and this new incarnation is a
mostly successful look at some of the issues raised by those
furry, scaly, and crawly creatures in our midst. It’s also
a showcase of some impressive talents. It’s a bit of an everything-and-the-kitchen
sink show, as curator and the Project’s director Laura Von
Rosk explained: It morphed, from an annual call for submissions,
into something bigger when she discovered the animal theme.
With our anthropomorphizing of animals as cute cuddly likenesses
in popular movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and
now, God help us, G-Force (with talking guinea pigs),
it’s difficult to get at anything resembling their truth,
and different artists take varied approaches to the problem.
Some make use of irony, as with Adelaide Paul, whose fascinating
porcelain sculptures (here a small pink dog on a heart-shaped
pillow, Bitch II, and an untitled standing horse) are
often covered in stitched leather, and Mary Kenny, whose small
mounted animal heads bring to mind taxidermy and toy animals.
Both are thought-provoking, although they don’t approach the
apocalyptic animal rights visions of, for example, Sue Coe.
Also darkly ironic are David Isele’s four wonderfully wacky,
sinister boxes posing animals as daffy constructs. In his
Making Ducks (2007), ducklings are yellow dime-store
puffballs framed by tree bark; in A Dinosaur Goes to the
Museum (2007), a cartoon dinosaur visits its metal-boned
forbears. The overall effect is like a box Joseph Cornell
might make after taking acid and watching Night at the
Related to these gestures of the absurd, animals are objects
of fantasy in Amy Ross’s surreal watercolor collages of “birdshrooms”
(birds with the heads of mushrooms, realistically rendered).
And three masterful paintings by Patricia Bellan-Gillen explore
animal symbology: in Stealing God, a gorgeous white
monkey floats on an equine inner tube, while in Crossing/After
Patinir (2008), Renaissance-styled saints row a boat on
a textured sea of smoky pinks alongside turtles with torches
on their backs.
Still in a dream world, but taking a turn for the more conflicted,
are Jason Bronner’s small nightscapes of snarling canids and
Andrew Johnson’s collaged images of gazelles confronting helicopters.
Here we get glimpses of animality—a quality of violence we
think of as coming from the beasts but which might be just
as much human. Beauty and terror were most satisfyingly embodied
in videos from Catherine Chalmers’ superior American Cockroach
project: Cockroaches survive in Gas Chamber, while
Safari plunges viewers underwater to watch a white
frog devour a bug whole—the camera is so close, we can almost
feel the frog’s digestive processes begin. The soundtrack
(cockroaches whisper and giggle; antennae beat like drums)
enhances the effect.
Others approach the subject of animal life with Zen-like reverence:
Catherine Hamilton’s ink drawings of a rabbit and a squirrel
are so whispery-soft and precisely realized you could easily
think they were in pencil. Similarly, Barbara Moody’s charcoal
drawings of goats (Moving On, 2008) and rabbits (Should
We? 2007), would be at home in a lushly printed children’s
book, while Ann Lovett’s close-up color photographs, framed
by ocular circles fading to black, evoke, somewhat heavy-handedly,
vanishing species. Reet Das’ beautifully detailed 80-inch
wide collages of anatomical hearts and a skeleton intertwined
with rats, woodpeckers, and schools of fish argue for human-
With 15 artists jostling for attention in one room, unevenness
is inevitable. And without wall text, context is often lost:
Looking at Deborah Brown’s oil paintings, for example, you
might not know they’re part of a larger series envisioning
animals in places that used to be their habitats. A video
from Michael Pestel’s Ornithology Series, in which he creates
music for and with birds, needed more background. While it’s
less provocative than it might be, given that the exhibition
tries to do several things at once (please a popular audience,
showcase contemporary artists, think about animals), it does
an admirable job.