HIGH ART: ‘Amazing’ plays politics with animals

By on May 7, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – “Amazing Animals,” the latest exhibition at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, is a small but provocative curation of prints and paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. Featuring works from headliners John James Audubon to Andy Warhol, the exhibition is historically and stylistically comprehensive.

What captured me most about “Amazing Animals” is the political and emotional fury behind the majority of images and the contemporary relevance these images have to culture as well as the larger art world. Looking at the selection broadly, there is a dramatic depiction of hyper-emotion, struggle and narrative that exudes from the animals. The exhibit is marked by opposition in Warhol’s flat, stylized, formal pop prints of animals.

The latter is greatly informed by the more emotive pieces, perhaps commenting that we have become so disconnected, fragmented from the nature of animals that they have become just what Warhol depicts – decorative specimens. The animals either have to scream and nearly die on the page to get our attention, or have become edified icons, commemorated in an industrial aesthetic.

Photo cutline: Passiflora vitifolia, acrylic and ink over Audubon print. Photo credit: Penelope Gotlieb

Photo cutline: Passiflora vitifolia, acrylic and ink over Audubon print.
Photo credit: Penelope Gotlieb

One such piece depicting this struggle is Walton Ford’s 1999 multi-process drawing, “La Historia Me Absolvera.” A now extinct red macaw clings to a girthy, eroding tree, evading looming flies and traps. In the background, the land burns, smoke trailing into the bird’s foreground territory. Referencing much of the 19th century, Ford’s prints recall the style of Audubon drawings but use this history to criticize industrialism, socialism and our relationship to the environment.

Another represented artist using Audubon imagery for political critique is Penelope Gottlieb. Using digital reproductions of actual Audubon prints, she paints over the top of his animals, using twisted flora and fauna that often grapple with the animal subjects. Her 2011 painting, “Passiflora Vitifolia,” is a beautiful and aggressive fight between the plant life and a bird. The choking, tangled bird arches its head into the ground, a full wingspan spasms across the paper in an attempt to free itself from the invasive plants. Leaving the exhibition I can’t get the idea of the panting and squawking animal cries out of my head. “See us? Feel our existence. We are you and we are struggling.”

As you walk away from this activated space, be sure not to miss “Human/Nature.” Closing Thursday, it is a smart conceptual bridge to “Animals” and has many gems from the likes of Goya, Gyula Talos and Joseph M. Gleason. The glossy painting that spatially joins the two exhibitions was one of my favorites, titled “Cap’n Fisher” by the prolific contemporary painter, Tom Palmore. Standing perpendicular to the painting, you can view Warhol’s blue print of an elephant. Together they make for a great connection between design/interiors and perceptions of the natural world.

The museum’s local’s free Sunday is an awesome gift to the community. For some reason I have a hard time drawing myself out of my cove to make it to the space in the winter. Always looking forward to the short bike ride out and sunny, peaceful moments that can be spent in the many viewing nooks inside and out, this spring trip did not disappoint.  Despite the engaging art I saw, spending time in the museum, soaking up the crisp, clean smell of paper and carefully preserved art, looking onto the valley and traversing the grounds was a mystical experience, and I love the feel of the museum. It is a powerfully defining space that architecturally marries content and concept and really does draw me closer to nature. I left feeling perturbed and satisfied.

About Abbie Miller

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