Animals are arguably easier to draw than humans but perhaps they become the subject of artists because they allow for a more subtle communication of complex topics. "A Complicated Dominion" is a group exhibition featuring five artists who use animals to tell a human history without ever depicting any of us habitat-destroying jerks.
Initially on the lookout for Tara Tucker's "plantimal" sculptures of sheep with trees growing from their backs, I was derailed behind a black curtain to James Drake's three-channel video installation, City of Tells. The triad of screens played time-lapsed videos of unoccupied, fully-set dinner tables complete with roasted turkeys, flowers, and wine glasses. On the left screen, a mangy pig wandered up to the table and helped himself to the meal. On the right, a giant python slithered in, sniffing the turkey with his forked tongue and crushing salads with his hefty body. Looking back to the pig, I saw he'd multiplied and his gang of savage beasts was now tearing the table to shreds. The scene was filthy but momentarily glorious when a flower arrangement was squished between two pigs, then knocked over and eaten. Back in snake territory, a white chicken had appeared and was perched on top of the turkey. The live image of an enormous reptile circling a live bird sitting atop a cooked bird was a bit sickening. I quickly tried to predict the future of this video, wondering whether or not PETA cares about killing chickens in the name of art. The table on the middle screen, by the way, didn't get much action other than a hummingbird visitor and a few furry passersby in the background. It was an outdoor table, and its most notable moment happened when the scene faded to nighttime darkness and only random flashes of light on the glassware could be seen.
Back to the chicken! The snake inched closer, but the chicken paid no mind. When it started to look really bad for the chicken and he and the snake were about to get kissy-face, everything faded to black. The videos were created in an edition of eight, and when they started up again, the snake vs. chicken fiasco was replaced with a harmless horse sniffing the dinner table. It was as if the artist knew that I far prefer ponies to snakes. Not until I left the installation room did I realize the piece had a soundtrack -- eerie sounds akin to white noise composed by Pascal Dusapin. Immediately obsessed with making meaning of this visceral experience, I came up with nothing but faint memories of reading Orwell's Animal Farm in the eighth grade. But Meredith Tromble's catalogue essay, "Small Powers" shed some light. She proposed that the image of the unruffled chicken being stalked by the snake "may be saying that we, in our domestic comfort, are similarly gazing stupidly at mortal danger."
Tara Tucker's sheep, Forest Ewe, Lamb, and Ram were expertly crafted in mixed media with tree roots that appeared to fuse with their skeletal structures. Surprisingly, I read the sculptures differently in the catalogue's promotional photo because they were shown faced inward in a sheep huddle. Faced outward on separate pedestals in the exhibition, they seemed to lack the narrative the alternate positioning suggested. But the "plantimal" message is more about the possibilities of our future -- of Tucker's similar hybrid plant-animal drawings, Tromble's essay points out the lack of background and suggests that the creatures might "come from a future we can't see because we are not part of it." The same could be said of Tiffany Bozic's divinely rendered acrylic-on-maple paintings of entangled sea life and Drake's City of Tells installation. On a final note, Liev Fagereng's painting of a Suburban Owl high above a city's lights holding a dead rat in its beak was the piece I'd most like to take home, possibly because of the artist's remarkable painting style and the fact that owls are awesome and rats are dreadful.
"A Complicated Dominion" is on view through August 16th, 2008, and a brown bag lunchtime discussion with artist Tiffany Bozic will be held on July 23rd at Noon.