Sometimes Whimsical, Sometimes Satirical…
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Curator Karen Kienzle leaves the deSaisset Museum with a light note on a serious subject in an exhibition that amuses us and plays on our mixed relations with nature. We are reminded of the historic artist’s still life composed of edibles, flowers and perhaps the bounty of the hunt, but mostly, it is our contemporary relations to the animal world that are featured. Some of the artists put their animal musings in the context of nature as a whole. Some observations are sympathetic and some are bizarre. There is plenty to say, of course, about the contemporary politics of our knowledge and conservation of the natural balance of things. The exhibition is timed to coincide with the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin whose observations on evolution so rudely upset the theistic narrative of centuries.

One of my favorite works in the show is an enormous sad rodent by Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor. Higgins O’Connor sculpts larger-than-human-scale anthropomorphic rats and mice out of a wide range of fabrics from lace curtains, towels, panty hose, old levis to throw rugs. The precariously assembled figures that emerge look like the cross between a bag lady and a rat’s nest in a box of Goodwill donations discovered after it was accidentally left behind in the garage. They are funny but at the same time they seem to comment on how even the most persistent pests of the ages may be affected by our failure to care properly for the animal kingdom.

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Stephanie Metz’ Super Suckler, 2008

Stephanie Metz makes a more subtle comment on our ambivalence toward other living beings when she sews her animals out of felted wool. We adore creatures with feathers, our furry pets and domesticated mammals, but a fetus, a scaly animal or the bare hide of a sow generate less warmth and sympathy. Metz takes animal forms that have less appealing exteriors and gives them a soft fuzzy surface that causes us to reconsider. Her sow specimen in this exhibition seems to have been selectively bred to not only sprout fur, but a few extra teats, as well.

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Fruit and Loins, 2008, by David Hevel

The extravagant sculptural assemblages of David Hevel reveal a great deal of insight into the extremes of pet ownership. Much has been said about the degree to which our pets reflect who we are, what we look like or whom we wish to be. Hevel’s pets are a hybrid of anthropomorphic body parts, varied species of dogs and other unspecified creatures. As much as we initially choose them to reflect us, they seem to be further imitating us, sporting fashionable if ridiculous hairstyles, sagging pants that reveal patterned boxer shorts beneath, irritable and aggressive facial expressions and cheap costume jewelry. Stuffed and planted in an exotic faux garden on a crummy fur rug, they expose our poor appreciation for real life as well as our generic bad taste. It’s a tough commentary executed with impeccable craft.

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Susan Felter’s digital print Fox and Birds, 2007

Digital photographer Susan Felter uses considerable photoshop skills to alter textural fields from nature with pattern-like repetitions of plant or animal matter, and even human elements such as pencils or brushes. Her insertions are seamless, and jewel-like, bringing many elements forward and subtly flattening her field. Focusing on the curious discoveries in her tapestry of small details, it takes a while to realize that we are suspended above the imagery or that deep space has closed in on us toward the top of the image with an Asian perspective. She leaves us with that slightly disoriented feeling we get from a natural history museum diorama where three dimensions dissolves into two dimensional illusion in the deep space. In other images, it is the inserted element itself that gives us a clue that nature is not natural anymore. Felter’s fox in the forest suggests something is unreal here. Is he stuffed? Then we begin to ask if the many birds we can discover within the frame are natural to this forest. It may all be simulacra.

Kathryn Spence works a bit like Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor in that her birds and squirrels are made of detritus from our urban environment – the natural and the man-made – sticks, bits of string, newspaper, torn clothing scraps, etc. They are at once perky and forlorn. Spence focuses on birds in particular for their ubiquitous coexistence with the natural world and the urban jungle. She constructs her birds and quirky lumps of odd intertwined materials- much as if they were in storage for a bird’s nest, or regurgitated from an owl belly- and she draws them afterwards, perhaps as an affirmation that as fragile as they may seem they will endure in one incarnation or another. Her renderings are as tender and caring of each curious sculptural form as if they were alive.

There are seventeen artists featured in this show, each with an interesting take on how we relate to the natural world. Natural Blunders is accompanied by another fine exhibition, Flora and Fauna from the Permanent Collection, curated by faculty and staff from the Biology Department. Both shows run until March 20.

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