current exhibition

Review Archive

Animals R Us

by Anya Chung


Orwellian writing routinely brings up a familiar theme: the social terror of
utopia gone wrong, the beastly features of ardent revolutionaries turned greedy,
ruthless animals. But then, there are other themes left idling behind the pow-
erful messages. Among these themes, in Animal Farm we witness a skillful play
of characters, the human animals - or animal humans? - a plethora of symbols,
both obvious and obscure.

The Gallery Project's Animal Farm show forgoes the central Orwellian mes-
sages, and in that, it may disappoint a few in the audience. Instead, the curators
Heather Accurso and Frank Pahl cast a wider net posing the questions, "How
are we like animals?" and "What can we understand about ourselves through
animals?" Animal imagery, play, and symbolism have persisted in human psy-
che, and the show cracks open a window into this privately-collective space.
Through the phantasies of the local and (largely) Chicago (educated or based)
artists we get to explore the symbolic farm of our own.

First, there is the human-animal play. No matter how quickly this play can
get dismal, we are all too apt to use animals as toys (and to make our toys
animal). So I experience an undeniable playful feeling for the resin pyramid of
the stackable, white little square cows erected by Van Ness. Is the irony of the
anonymous, immediately consumable, inanimate-animal (what a cow is to us
now) obvious to me? Sure, but what feels important in the moment is to play
with the object, destroy the pyramid, move the cow-cubes, have them meet each
other and your friends, say "moo" for them, and arrange them in an improbable

Another "toy" renders much more distress to the imagination: as I've been trying
to comprehend the "function" of a cold, exacting, surgical stainless steel piece
by Berlant The Cat Restraint/Human Pleasure Device, a series of disturbing
masochistic ideas enter my imagination. All along, these are ideas of play with
an animal, a domesticated play-thing. Why cat? - why not a child, a lover. . .
Berlant's steel goes a long way.

A popular plaything - a rabbit- takes a further symbolic plunge in Spiess-
Ferris's Rabbit # 3 piece. An unbearably evil-eyed, pink-fleshed suspicious
creature is really a human-beast (rather than just an unfortunate pet). The
delicate, iconographic Victorian garden setting belies the danger of a foul play-
mate. Yet this cross, repulsive creature feels strangely intimate, ready to identify
with, familiar.


For a somewhat lighter play sentiment, Poskovic's The Catalyst in Ochre and
Red offers a masterfully printed poster of Van-Goghian Gorilla, and Patterson's
No.4 continues the animal "formal portrait" theme with a fluffy, frank, rather
senatorial-looking yet sad condor. If play is not your thing and you take yourself
rather seriously - well, not to worry. A few works layered with technique-content
interplay are offered to your sensible art ego.

The four works by Bartone attack with their style. Presented first, the etching
Lowcountry Game is incredibly accomplished in its precise technique. Chicago-
style ultra-realistic Breed and Hunger pieces in acrylic penetrate the eye with
their brooding industrial backgrounds. And the lithograph Strike recreates the
aerial landscapes reminiscent of both early Flemish and Chinese traditions. The
intersection of the format and the subject in Bartone's work engenders a complex
perception: the vanitas of the "as-if" 17th century Dutch still-life deliver the
contemporary judgments through the animal imagery. The ugly "beauties", the
domesticated predators, the (un?)native invaders allude to the beastly features
of us, humans.

The enthralling beastliness of the human form is expressed strikingly by Ac-
curso's drawing Girl With Pink Lungs. A perturbing yet tranquil, exquisite and
fragile, museum-like exhibit of an infant girl trapped in paper mid-air oats its
saurian limbs and sinewy, visceral hair. The primal baby-beast provokes my
affection, repulses me, and fills me with expectancy.

My personal favourite is Menco's The Madonna of the Prairie. It brings two
very different paintings to my mind: van Eyck's Madonna at the Fountain (the
blue-robed dreamy Maria against the opulent red-and-gold of brocade) and Cha-
gall's The Rooster (rapt maiden sensuously straddling the rooster). The tender
eroticism harboured by the mother and the rooster-babe dyad is utterly intense
in its privacy (their eyes are closed) and serene; it stops time. Two other works
by Menco, Extinct and Laocoön Madusa stir me with an unlikely mixture of
otherworldliness and contemporaneousness. The beguiling creatures look both
Judaic and Netherlandish, they encounter each other in each moment in silent
un-connectedness, although tethered, almost bonded. Through these bonds,
where animal starts, human continues. The otherness of a strange animal is
however no more perplexing than the alienation of a human.

A few more works strike an intriguing thought: Berlant's Felis Domesticus
Skull, Lowly's Mother Humming Bird, Jenkins's Hang II, Spiess-Ferris's Holly's
Dream, Pahl's & Mountain's Forward comrades! Long live the windmill! Long
Live Animal Farm!

Come see for yourself. See what U R.


June 29, 2010
Anya Chung , Ann Arbor, MI,