Of all the Seattle galleries, Greg Kucera in Pioneer Square has usually mounted the most ambitious and challenging group shows. Ambitious, in terms of the number and geographical reach of the works, and challenging, in terms of tackling tough issues. Past exhibits have had as their focus subjects like sex, life in Black America, and the relationship of text and image. The current show, Sweet and Wild — Animals in Contemporary Art, continues the tradition, and as might be expected, the treatment of our furry and feathered friends is not of the warm and cuddly variety. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
It’s a well-known fact that the sight of faces with big eyes and small noses, like that of a human baby, triggers a powerful nurturing impulse. That effect also attracts us to animals like rabbits and cats. Cute and lovable, yes; murderous, no.
All the more shocking then, to see a group of smiling, impish bunnies, turtles and squirrels dismembering and devouring a life-sized human figure in the in-your-face installation that greets one upon first entering the animal show at Greg Kucera. It’s more than the artist making a statement here — in the placement and prominence of the piece , the gallery is sending a message too: leave your stuffies at the door, this is animal art with an agenda.
The installation in question, a very well-crafted affair by newcomer Eric Huebsch, effectively balances black humor against the macabre. Not only are the flesh-chewing animals straight out of Disney, they do their grim work to the accompaniment of “Whistle While you Work,” the musical soundtrack triggered by a hidden motion detector. Drops of realistic blood and severed body parts rest on a bed of leaves and pine needles, suggesting the massacre is taking place deep in the woods. Equally unsubtle is the depiction of the victim himself — Man The Destroyer, dressed in dress shirt and tie, a chainsaw in place of genitalia, a gas valve installed in his hip.
Many of the other pieces in the show share this highly jaundiced view of nature. Peter Edlund’s painting is a bizarrely colored but otherwise realistic takeoff on the posed-bird-in-trees compositions of John James Audubon. Lest we begin to think of this as merely a celebration of the natural world, the work is titled “State Birds of the Slave States” . Edlund specializes in politically charged reconstructions of otherwise pastoral art, and here he seems to be referring both to the dark side of early America, as well as the purported mixed-race origin of Audubon himself.
In New York artist Frank Moore’s fanciful watercolor entitled, "Central Park 2050," zoo animals like giraffes and elephants are adrift on little chunks of rock, the result of some future catastrophe which has devastated a distant Manhattan. People are in the process of rescuing the animals by hauling them onto dry land with ropes. But the dry lands here are only tiny tower-like islands, their broken undersides spewing sewage and subway trains into the water below. And yes, this grim but whimsical piece was done well before 9/11; post-9/11 most artists are putting their New York disaster pieces on hold.
Elsewhere, Ross Palmer Beecher takes the convention of the stuffed animal head on the wall and transforms it into something that is sinister, elegant, and tacky, all at once. Her hunting trophy features some sort of exotic animal skull, its lower jaw replaced with armor, the skeletal head set in the middle of a glittering wreath of bottle caps and beads. Here the hunter, the collector and the folk artist are meeting at some surrealist middle point, their previously well-defined worlds now hopelessly muddled.
This being Greg Kucera, artists with national reputations like Frank Stella, Kara Walker, and Louise Bourgeois are represented, but with editioned prints rather than unique works. The Stella pieces — several giant, clunky abstractions — are a bit of a cheat, as their only connection with the animal world is in the title, which refers somehow to Moby Dick.
And then there is the Kiki Smith. Best known for her sculptures and constructions referencing human body parts and functions, her peaceful and uncomplicated etching of her cat GinZer seems almost out of place here, a straightforward valentine to a beloved pet. But even that is not quite what it seems — for the cat is dead, it’s curled pose not that of relaxation, but of rigor mortis.