Gallery Project's "Animal Farm" offers up a creative menagerie
by John Carlos Cantu
Leave it to Ann Arbor's Gallery Project to puzzle us with the seemingly incongruous — if not also contradictory — “Animal Farm.”
This multimedia exhibit is built around George Orwell’s 1945 dystopian novel of the same name. But where that novel is anthropomorphically political, Gallery Project’s exhibit broadens its scope from brute power relations to far more subtle issues ranging from industrial farming to animal rights in general.
The exhibit statement tells us the display is meant to “provide insight into (the) origins and expressions of human intimidation, power, and control.”
Fair enough, as this expression is certainly close enough to Orwell’s initial conception. But the statement then goes on to say the display is also meant to be an opportunity for Gallery Project artists “to create artwork that explores the human-like qualities to be found in animals and the beast-like qualities that can be found in mankind.” And it’s this psychological interconnectedness that makes “Animal Farm” a much different sort of logic.
The exhibit’s curators are Gallery Project stalwarts Heather Accurso and Frank Pahl. Contributors include Accurso, Curtis Bartone, Jamie Berlant, Brian Ciupka, Rocco DePietro, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, Temple Grandin, Maurice Greenia, Craig Hinshaw, Jeri Hollister, Gwen Joy, Jennifer Jenkins, Tim Lowly, Paul Marquardt, Bert Menco, Vince Mountain, Audrey Niffenegger, Pahl, Jim Pallas, Dennis Palmer, Julia Patterson, Endi Poskovic, Gloria Pritschet, Terri Sarris, David Van Ness and Alison Wong.
Some of these works are nearly literal in their meaning. For example, Curtis Bartone’s “Strike” lithograph features a coiled snake on a twig poised for action. And Jeri Hollister’s handsome hand-carved stoneware “Bronze Horse” is more rigid than her spirited “Yin and Yang 2” currently on display in Washtenaw Community College’s GalleryOne “Potters Guild: A Self-Portrait at 60,”—but its internal tension conveys the same intensity.
Moving closer to the surreal is the politically pointed recycled detritus of Jim Pallas’ mixed-media tar-based wall-mounted “Gulf Golf” sculpture made of slimed feathers, fractured shards, and greasy golf balls. Craig Hinshaw’s stoneware “Sliced Pig” is just that: A standing pig whose midsection has been sliced. While Audrey Niffenegger’s sepia-toned aquatint, etching “The Starling’s Funeral” finds death draped as a mortician driving an 19th century hearse wagon pulled by skeletal horses, oversized blackbirds, and a train of ascending butterflies observed by a solemn crowd of starlings.
Gloria Pritschet’s conceptually literary “‘Animal Farm’: A Great Read!” is a cleverly self-referential pair of glazed horse bust bookends with 14 copies of Orwell’s novel nestled in-between. And Rocco DePietro’s “Incarcerated Pig” is a found-object marvel that finds just the right curvilinear shard of a ceramic bowl encased in a wood cell to create an imaginative bust out of refuse.
As is typical of each Gallery Project exhibit, “Animal Farm” has mounted a mixed-media installation that dramatically encapsulates the show’s theme. Frank Pahl, Terri Sarris, and Vince Mountain’s “…all flung down the well” consists of an array of worn and distressed farm tools chillingly framed within a stone circle where a pair of flashing ceiling lights menacingly alternate shadows about the gallery’s darkened rear alcove.
One can imagine Orwell’s victorious domesticated animals joyfully tossing such gear down Farmer Jones’ watering shaft after the novel’s pivotal battle of the cowshed. But not Pahl, Sarris, and Mountain: Their stark installation reminds us that by Orwell’s reckoning, sometimes the new order only ends up like the old order—and what might have been thought of as progress is ultimately “…all flung down the well.”
“Animal Farm” will continue through July 25 at Gallery Project, 215 S. Fourth Ave. Exhibit hours are noon to 9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; and noon to 4 p.m., Sunday. For information, call 734-997-7012.