Too often, big group shows in commercial galleries end up being a hodgepodge of artists, lacking any organizing principle. They're sometimes sops to artists awaiting solo shows, or holiday exhibitions geared toward seasonal sales. "Beast" at Finesilver Gallery is an exception. The show presents an array of animal-themed works from 22 artists and includes everything from paintings to felt sculptures to wallpaper. Curated by Finesilver's director, Eleanor Williams, the exhibition contains some interesting work. Who knew there were this many artists finding inspiration in the animal kingdom?
Sharon Engelstein contributed an otter-shaped sculpture clad in a cape lavishly trimmed with purple feathers. Engelstein makes the only amphibious member of the weasel family look absurdly glamorous. The cape resembles something Endora would wear in an episode of Bewitched.
Meanwhile, Elaine Bradford is dressing four-legged friends with her crocheted deer-wear. One example lies on the floor of the gallery and looks like a striped union suit. A pair of antlers poke out of the limp garment like a set of falsies. Covering the deer from head to tail, it could pass as the craft project of a mad woodland hermit. You imagine her trying to coax the deer into its cute little outfit. On the wall, things are even more surreal. A mounted deer head is covered with a crocheted cozy that extends into ridiculously long antlers spiraling up to the ceiling. Bradford has left holes for the deer's glassy eyes to stare through. There's something weirdly appealing about crocheting things for animal carcasses.
Ken Little has his own taxidermy fixation, but he isn't dressing animals, he's accessorizing them, covering mounted animal heads with shoes and the occasional belt. A collection of them is grouped on the gallery wall. A kid's tap shoe forms a puma's ear; a cowboy boot delineates a bear's snout; a high-heeled pump becomes a boar's tusk. They're surprisingly animated and effective -- it's an amazingly creative use of old, nasty footwear.
Animals -- and insects -- become an element of home dcor in the work of several artists. Adia Millet lovingly cross-stitches portraits of cockroaches. She decoratively presents the reviled household pest in cheesy, antiqued gold frames, like the proud handiwork of a suburban housewife.
Cassandra C. Jones has selected a more esthetically pleasing subject for her work; she creates gorgeous wallpaper from flamingoes. For Rara Avis (2006), Jones took images of the birds' vividly colored bodies and curving necks and arranged and overlaid them into symmetrical, diamond-shaped patterns. You notice the rococo design of the wallpaper first; it's only upon closer inspection that you realize what comprises it.
You can find hidden animals in David Jurist's work as well. He has taken a series of photos of fluffy cumulus clouds, the kind that offer up hidden images to people on lazy summer days. With a colored pencil he helpfully delineated some of his discoveries -- a puppy, a ducky, a hippo -- resulting in work that is pretty as well as pretty silly.
Laurie Hogin has some lovely and way-too-strange portraits of animals. She's painting what look like court portraits, except they depict weird, polar-looking monkeys. In the stiffly posed and formal images, a girl monkey holds white narcissus and a boy monkey holds a pistol (is he preparing for a duel?). They have lush, icy blue-white fur and creepy red-rimmed eyes. The girl flashes an eerie little smile that reveals a row of tiny yellow teeth. The pale flesh of their faces has the faintest tinge of pink from the cold. The images are incredibly finely painted and absolutely riveting.
Seth Mittag's hunting-themed work is charming and unsettling. He made a coloring book of childhood hunting memories. In one drawing, a yellow-haired boy of about six stands in front of a rail fence in a cowboy hat holding up a rifle -- properly -- with the barrel aimed skyward. In another image, a diaper-clad baby perches on the blue-jeaned knee of his shirtless dad. The dad is giving him a sip from a can -- soft drink or beer, you can't quite tell which. Trucks, guns and hunting are part of what shapes interaction with animals and nature for many people. Depending upon how rural your upbringing was, they are either images of nostalgia or contempt.
Continuing his childhood theme, Mittag has thrown in a cutely macabre sculpture -- if such a thing is possible. Hung and Skinned (2006) is made out of felt, calling to mind cuddly stuffed animals. It's a deer -- sort of. Bambi's mom is a red, skinned, eviscerated and headless carcass hung upside down from a felt tree branch. Underneath it is a little circle of crimson felt simulating a pool of blood. The blend of childhood toys and the visceral calls to mind hunters hanging their kill from the kids' swing set for butchering.
Not every work in the show is as successful as these, but "Beast" is remarkably free of any real clunkers. The overall level of the work included is fairly high; it all comes down to individual taste -- and how much you like animals.
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