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The animal kingdom and the kingdom of art

September 27, 2009 |  7:00 am


Man and beast, the connection was made physical by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution in the mid-19th century.

Since then zoologists and wildlife documentaries have further drawn our relationship to animals, and a slew of artists have been pondering the same; and an exhibition at the UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery, “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art” (through 28), has gathered some provocative of their projects. “In the past, art dealing with animals usually addressed issues of representation,” says Tyler Stallings, gallery director. “I wanted to expand beyond that.” And so, he points out, this being the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth made it seemed especially timely for such a show.

Stallings invited Rachel Mayeri, an associate professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd College who is well known for her interest in “soft science” and is an artist, herself to help co-curate the show.  “I’m interested in art as a way of exploring science,” says Mayeri, also an artist. “Artists can think about biological issues through their work and make them more concrete.” Eventually, they selected 20 artists, mostly from California, encompassing video, photography, painting and sculpture. “We were looking for artists with a long-term commitment to trying to understand a different mentality, to appreciating what it means to be human,” Mayeri says.

Sam Easterson focuses on the animal’s point of view quite literally, by attaching minicams to creatures ranging from including armadillos, to falcons, from scorpions to and sheep, and letting them go on their way. The resulting clips end when the cam falls off, and are shown without narrative. Other artists get that subjectivity more obliquely, such as Catherine Chalmers’ video simulation of a cockroach moving through fauna and flora in “Safari” or Alison Ruttan’s video of a man mimicking a prowling cat in “Impersonator.”

The most controversial work in the show may be the reworked taxidermy of Carl Fernandez. Ten years ago, when considering additional uses for dead animals, she visited taxidermy shops and bought seven former-animals bodies. She re-created each as a piece of luggage, with openings and cavities. On exhibit will be two — “7100-Goat” is a goat reworked into a wheeled bag, its two horns projecting from the sides, and “7200-Buffalo” is a buffalo whose woolly head has been split open, presenting itself for packing one’s belongings. “Some people find the work disgusting,” Fernandez says, “but then they go out and have a steak dinner.”

For more images and details click here.

John Divola's "Dogs Chasing My car in the Desert."