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Art review: Carol Selter at Charlie James Gallery

July 8, 2011 |  8:45 am

Selter Hummingbird Global degradation of the natural habitat is the pointed, timely subject of recent photographs and short videos by Bay Area artist Carol Selter, who holds an advanced degree in biological sciences as well as in art. Rather than traditional documentary strategies, these heartbreaking works achieve their power through the simplest artifice.

At Charlie James Gallery, 12 photographs and eight videos bring us turtles, possums, a wolf, frogs and lots of varieties of birds, all set within the natural landscapes in which they are commonly found. The wolf stalks a snowy field. A hummingbird hovers near the nectar-filled blossoms of a brilliant orange flower. Turtles and frogs occupy the watery edges of a pond, some sitting on lily pads.

Selter's simple twist: The mammals and birds are stuffed and taxidermal, while the amphibians are in jars of formaldehyde. The disjunction between the seashore, forest or rolling landscape and the still and stilted animals is quietly creepy. A habitat meant to support life here harbors death.

Selter deftly denatures conventional nature photography -- the 12 pictures form a calendar -- exposing the genre to an unwholesome manipulation that seeps into the larger context. A duck appears to fly straight over a marsh, until you notice it's balanced (and perhaps impaled) on a stick. The hummingbird is suspended from string, like a puppet or a hanged criminal. Small bats entombed in glass petri dishes are suspended in a darkening sky, like macabre holiday ornaments.

Selter installation The videos add rudimentary animation, although "animate" is the antithesis of Selter's scenes of deforestation, polluted oceans and parched landscapes. All the videos are brief -- just a minute or two long -- with the unsettling aura of homemade cartoons, in which talking animals are a staple. Mumbled soundtracks give voices to animals adrift, but the humor is wretched and bleak.

Sometimes, other art is invoked. A taxidermy turtle dragged across asphalt pavement to a soundtrack of roaring highway traffic, for example, inescapably channels the brutality of John Steinbeck's hopeless Dust Bowl.

Meanwhile the photograph of a duck on a stick recalls Winslow Homer's famous painting, "Right and Left," an icon of American representations of the natural world, in which a pair of hunted ducks form a meditation on mortality. (In Selter as in Homer, the viewer's precarious vantage point is suspended in midair, not unlike like the doomed prey.) The hummingbird suggests Martin Johnson Heade's Civil War-era trip to Brazil to paint the exotic birds, in a flight from the social horrors at home.

The show also includes six sculptures, collectively titled "Burning Down the House." They are made from found animal death masks of tinted plaster, with bits of fur and whiskers attached. According to labels, the elephant, monkey, coyote and other animals succumbed to poaching, trapping, poisoning and other man-made ills. Here converted into museum-worthy displays, they quietly challenge easy assumptions. Romanticized conceptions of natural history get buried.

Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 687-0844, through July 16. Closed Sun. through Wed.


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-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Carol Selter, "December: The Hummingbird," photograph. Credit: Charlie James Gallery