Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Art's a Strange Animal. That's What I Know.

At the risk of insulting the many human artists who work hard at their craft (and, via the title for this post, diehard Gowan fans) I have to say I am way excited about "Animal House: Works of Art Made by Animals" at SAW Gallery in Ottawa. And I am very disappointed that I happened to time my Ottawa visit last month to seemingly *just miss* this show. Luckily the Ottawa Citizen's Paul Gessell provided a little review this week and Ottawa Xpress also did a previews feature a while back. The Ottawa Sun also did a little writeup on it.

Usually I don't like to give props about a show unless I've actually seen it. So why am I so taken by the hypetacularity of this exhibition? I think partly why it interests me is it's at a pretty solid artist-run centre (not a cash-seeking commercial gallery) and organized by a generally reliable artist/curator, Stefan St-Laurent.

On the less critical side of things, this show is about animals, goddammit! And I seem to like animals more and more lately, or at least (I'll be honest) cute ones, as in keeping with the increasing amount of animal-media crack available at places like Cute Overload. I guess I've also been seeing a lot of animal-focused art lately, like David R Harper's stuff, or Maura Doyle's, and really enjoyed that.

So while I didn't make it to the show, I did recently make it to the Toronto Zoo for the first time ever. And when I peeked in at the orangutans, I read their "bios," a few of which said "this orangutan really enjoys painting." I found that interesting. Not "has some paintings available for sale" (to benefit the zoo's coffers, etc.) but "really enjoys painting."

That phrase may well have been a warm-fuzzy white lie on the part of the zoo's PR folk, but watching those orangs watch us viewers, it wasn't hard for me to believe the fact that apes and humans are 98% genetically identical, as is displayed prominently on a sign at the zoo. As such, it's also believable that apes could potentially enjoy painting or sculpting just 'cause.

So.... Could it be humans and some apes share an art gene? I'm not posing this as a super-serious question, but it's something that's fun to think about in a sci-fi sort of way. How much of this whole painting thing is projection on our part? How much is innate? And so on. (I should time our PVR at some point to try and catch a less reverent approach to this question with David Letterman's "Artist or Ape?" painting analysis segment.)

I definitely think the paintings made by other species, like the turtle above, are appealing in quite a different way—namely, in the absurdity of the notion that the turtle has any idea what they are doing. Still, it's interesting to see a human artist working with turtles or other animals in this way as an ostensible, tongue-in-cheek "collaboration." And (here's where critics of the spectacle society can wince yet again) it's cute!

Incidentally, there was an unexpected piece of human art on view at the zoo—a life jacket made in polar bear size by Erica Gajewski called Thin Ice. The piece isn't super-awesome, but I was interested in the zoo integrating some art media. Wonder if they would ever do that more and how.

There's a whole other tangent I could go off on related to thoughts I've been having about comparing and contrasting zoos and museums—zoos being museums with a living collection, and being in some ways so much more effective at delivering a message of conservation and environmentalism (being face to face with a polar bear can do that to ya) but in other ways can be so much worse at same (case in point being the huge amounts of people who drive to the zoo, the huge amount of litter generated by takeout food places there, and the trivialization of wilderness that can happen within its bounds—if we can just build habitats, why save em, kind of thing). But I think I'll save those reflections for another post.

In the meantime.... back to the human artists! Hurrah!

Image of a turtle making a painting from the Ottawa Citizen


Gabby said...

I just got the images for this show and it does look pretty great. But I am also a Cute Overload addict, so maybe there are biases at play.

As for why orangutans love to paint, Jenn Matotek told me that a friend of hers is a biologist and that says monkeys *love* to paint. Like, in controlled zoo tests, they will often choose painting over eating food in a "forced choice" scenario.

Leah Sandals said...

Painting over food??? Maybe the genetic similarity is even more than 98% when it comes to paint, then? Wild.