Artistic Encounters With Animals Say Something About Being Human

Christopher Reiger, Detail of 'Familiar: Great Horned Owl,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

As I began writing this article, I checked my email in a moment of procrastination and saw an alert from the social media site Nextdoor titled “Yet Another Coyote Encounter” reporting a coyote sighting in an urban San Francisco park. Later, as I continued working outdoors in Santa Cruz, a wild turkey ran past me, and I was compelled to photograph it and share the image.

These encounters with animals were somehow both mundane and noteworthy. We have lived alongside non-human animals since before we were human, and yet we so often find ourselves in awe when we encounter someone from outside our species.

Encounters: Honoring the Animal in Ourselves, an exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, grapples with this seeming contradiction with work from 16 artists who likewise feel the urge to share their own encounters, those of others, and even fictitious ones.

Fanny Retsek, 'Coyote Sighting #4, 1/28/18; #8 (5/11/18), #10 (6,1,18); 37.409, -122.157 (Junipero Serra),' 2019.
Fanny Retsek, 'Coyote Sighting #4, 1/28/18; #8 (5/11/18), #10 (6,1,18); 37.409, -122.157 (Junipero Serra),' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

The artworks in the exhibition frame the relationships between humans and non-humans in a select number of ways. There are relationships defined by alienation and distance, fantastical views of animals, animals serving as guides, and animals presented as peers to humans. Many of these relationships and perspectives overlap, and there are likely many more present, but each emerges as prominent and noteworthy.

Palo Alto-based artist Fanny Retsek depicts scenarios similar to the Nextdoor post in three mixed-media pieces titled Coyote Sighting. In one, a small coyote and its shadow are seen boldly walking behind a chain-link fence; in another, the creature is hidden, less visible than an outdoor house cat. The fascination with these sightings results from humans’ increasing alienation from non-domesticated animals, especially among city dwellers.

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As with the wild turkey I spotted, these encounters create an urge—irresistible to some—to note, depict, and share because the alienation has been momentarily breached.

As a consequence of this separation, modern people continue to indulge in the timeless tradition of bestowing mythical qualities on animals. Roberto Benavidez participates in this tradition by creating intricate piñatas of the fantastical animals that appear in Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th-century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Benavidez’s <Kangaroo with Long Ears, for example, realizes in material form a hybrid kangaroo-dog-mouse dreamed up by the Netherlandish painter more than 500 years ago.

The late surrealist Leonora Carrington and the late printmaker Belkis Ayón Manso also bask in the supernaturality of animals in their allegorical work.

But even with relationships defined by alienation and fantasy, non-human animals also occupy an intimate space in the lives and imaginations of humans. For many, animals are not just companions, but also peers. Christopher Reiger’s series of sumi ink and watercolor paintings demonstrate that animals can simultaneously evoke mystery and closeness.

Roberto Benavidez, 'Kangaroo with Long Ears (Bosch Beast No. 2),' 2019.
Roberto Benavidez, 'Kangaroo with Long Ears (Bosch Beast No. 2),' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

The three paintings in Reiger’s Familiar series depict the disembodied, slightly abstracted heads of a bobcat, a coyote and a great horned owl. The animals are each spirit-like, and the title refers to supernatural animals that assist witches and other practitioners of magic. And yet, the creatures look out from the paper directly at the viewer. They are not shy like the coyote in Retsek’s work or uninterested in human presence like Benavidez’s creature. Viewers must look at Reiger’s familiars in their eyes, establishing equivalence.

Reiger’s familiars also cross into the role animals play as teachers or guides, something that is only possible if the human and non-human can find common ground. Kara Maria also references this role in her print The Animal That Lives in Your Heart, which depicts the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac tattooed in bright colors on a human arm. Here they are not just abstract astrological symbols, but integral parts of the human whose life they guide.

Each of the artists represented in Encounters views animals from differing perspectives, but all of the work affords animals a sense of agency, respect and even status. There is no indication that these animals are property, pests or mere resources to be exploited.

The animals are not portrayed as entirely separate from their observers, companions and creators. This is because animals define us. They are in our origin stories, our folk tales, our cuisines, our popular culture, and, of course, our homes. At the same time, mass urbanization and mass extinction are creating a gulf between humans and non-humans. (Even the domesticated animals many of us eat are far out of sight.) Encounters reminds us who we are and what we have to lose if we don’t cherish and honor these relationships.

'Encounters: Honoring the Animal in Ourselves' is on view at the Palo Alto Art Center through Dec. 29. Details here.

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