Animal lovers, hold your furry friends close. “Dead Animals, or the Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art” at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery is not for the faint of heart.
The first thing you see inside the gallery is Maurizio Cattelan’s “Untitled,” a sweet little tableau of two yellow labs and a fluffy baby chick, lifelike yet still as stone. “Untitled” is sculpture constituted of three previously alive animals. They have gone from being individuals to being things.
Bell Gallery Director Jo-Ann Conklin has organized a show that gets under your skin as skillfully as a taxidermist’s blade. “Dead Animals” uncannily confronts us with death, and pushes discomfort up a notch by converting remains into art.
It also examines ably how we relate to animals, which has changed with the rise of animal studies in universities, an ever growing pet-care industry, and heightened concerns about extinction and animal rights. Embracing fears about genetic manipulation and a grand history of mythic monsters, it offers hybrids. Through a photographic lens, it takes stock of natural history museums.
Taxidermy displays in natural history museums have gone out of fashion; they are now derided as vestiges of colonialism. Starting back in the 1970s, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto photographed museum displays in black and white, editing out surroundings so that a diorama looks like the real thing. In taxidermy, as in photography, reality gets confused with representations of reality.
Several photographers follow his lead. Richard Ross’s “Deyrolle Taxidermy, Paris, France” depicts a display of two lions in fierce combat. They bare their teeth and draw blood, but their hides look as saggy and spare as an old carpet. Jules Greenberg’s series “Fallen” captures stuffed birds from museum storage with cotton balls looking ghostly in their eye sockets. Once alive and purposeful, they have been consigned to drawers in backrooms.
The 3-D works are the most unnerving; they flirt more blatantly with death. In 1991, Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, caused quite a stir. His “Away From the Flock,” made three years later and on view here, sets a pretty little lamb in a vitrine of formaldehyde. Twenty-five years on, the outrage has ebbed, but the unease remains. It’s a death-in-your-face piece, no subtlety about it.
Other works have more nuance, and, often, humor. Annette Messager’s “La colonne du petit chien (the column of the little dog)” has a wee taxidermy dog perched atop a column of bundled fabric; at the bottom, a head shape droops and arms splay. This pooch has conquered its master. In a politically pointed piece, Deborah Sengl outfits taxidermy animals with wax accessories that look like human skin. In “Killed to Be Dressed,” a mink dresses to the nines in “human” accessories: a coat, a bag, and shoes.
There’s poignancy as well as outrage in Nicholas Galanin’s “Inert,” a wolf skin, laid out like a bearskin rug, but the front half has been stuffed. The wolf appears to struggle to pull itself forward by its front legs.
In animals we see reflections of ourselves: courage and dignity, playfulness, warmth. We hold them dear as children. We also shoot them for sport, and disregard the health of their habitats. Like photography, taxidermy offers a still representation of life. Unlike photography, it is the very stuff of death. “Dead Animals” is a lively, occasionally nightmarish show, cutting to the heart of what we love and what we fear.
Futility versus fortitude
“I Will Go On . . .” a group show at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, celebrates a certain kind of tenacious artist whose process can be a marathon. Because the focus here is on process, not product, the works have little in common visually and even conceptually.
Still, we can marvel at the sheer effort. Aaron Meyers’s ongoing performance piece “It Must Be Nearly Finished” stands strong even when he’s not performing. Meyers brackets planks to the wall like diving boards. This is the seventh place he’s shown the work. We have the six previous planks, broken off and strewn over the floor, and the seventh, which he sat on and drilled holes into, strewing sawdust, until it, too, broke away. He may never finish — an eighth plank suggests the next venue — and his work is a brilliant picture of futility versus fortitude.
Jon Kuzmich translates economic data into paint in “Portrait of the US as a Consumer,” applying each datum (there are up to 4 million) with a needlepoint to create a grid pulsing with color. For “The Bureau of Suspended Objects,” Jenny O’Dell excavated a San Francisco dump and researched each find, providing a provenance. Rather than painting a picture of San Franciscans’ consumerism, it reflects the artist’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.
The works have more to say than the sweat it took to make them, but that’s lost in this context. The show, put together by Pam Campanaro, Montserrat’s associate curator of exhibitions and programs, clings too tightly to its theme, which casts a shadow over the exhibition rather than catalyzing it.
Dead Animals, or The Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art
At David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through March 27. 401-863-2932, www.brown.edu/bellgallery
I Will Go On. . .
At Montserrat College of Art Gallery, 23 Essex St., through April 2. 978-921-4242, www.montserrat.edu/galleries