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Lions and Tigers, Indeed
Animal House exhibition reviewed by Janet M. Goleas
December 27, 2006

Be it Egyptian falcons carved from stone, anatomically reconfigured deer that hover from above, valleys of hybrid beasts from a Boschian landscape, or the stuffed Angora goat of Rauschenberg's Monogram the mutable, fantastical animal and its many faces has represented everything from symbolic deity to benevolent best friend. Throughout the annals of art history animals have figured heavily both as subject and symbol. And here, in Islip Art Museum's current exhibition Animal House, curator Karen Shaw has selected eleven artists whose works ricochet between the infinite associations of animal kingdom and politics, amusement, ecology, fear, psychology and, yes, personality, personality, personality.

In Jill Greenberg's large format photographs she depicts a brown-eyed Gibbon diffidently staring out at visitors from the exhibition hallway. An acclaimed celebrity photographer, Greenberg's monkey and ape portraits have become as legendary as her Hollywood portrayals of actors and film tycoons, their sharpness and color saturation revealing the unlikely depths of primate introspection. Next to her contemplative Gibbon, a larger-than-life Vervet monkey exhibits a more chilling disposition. Greenberg's uncanny ability to seize the emotional tension and personality traits of our biological cousins has shown them to possess qualities remarkably close to us, and the impeccable production quality of these prints lends to them stunning sharpness and super-realism.

If taxidermy and assemblage met their apotheosis in the wunderkammer of Western Europe, they have surely been revived here with the art of Johnston Foster, Kathleen Henderson and Lauren Davies. Down the hall looms a huge, snarling bear made of dingy carpet scraps and recycled shreds of tape and plastic. Part "cartoon bear", Johnston Foster's nine foot High Plains Drifter generates a truly shocking but wholly fictitious scariness as it heaves toward the gallery door. But the heart of the sculpture pays homage to this planet's demise and the startling diminishment of our polar bear population. Foster uses recycled materials to create these emissaries of the animal kingdom, each of them a refugee from the metaphor and mythology of animal folklore, natural phenomenon and our environment. Untitled (baby rhino) tells one of the oldest stories of evolution, depicting a rhinoceros, one of our most ancient ancestors, fashioned from recycled traffic cones. Here the orange shards imply a cautionary tale linked to all the danger and violence of highway travel. In so doing Foster expunges the instinctive brutality from this prehistoric beast, allowing it to rest in the peril of high speed automotive travel.

The grotesque and anthropomorphic taxidermy of the Victorian era meets Surrealism in the tiny animal heads, hands and grasping arms of Kathleen Henderson. As if recovering from a traumatic oil spill, the diminutive growling animals are slathered with sticky, black goo. In Wolf, a maddened, gnashing wolf hopelessly bears its fangs from under a skin of gummy tar. Henderson's tiny sculptures induce the viewer to close visual inspection because their details are so submerged in blackness. In doing so, fragments of stories emerge from the dark, revealing tales of helplessness, vulnerability, sadness, satire and a touch of madness—as if severed from a larger narrative.

Sculptor Lauren Davies addresses the phenomenon of pedigree dog breeding in her series Breeder's Choice. She collects hair samples from purebred dogs and incorporates the actual fur into her scale models of the likes of Standard Poodles, Maltese and Tibetan Terriers. Scrupulous in her attention to detail, the recreations of canines are precise down to the tilt of their ears. In Feral Upholstery, however, Davies turns the table on the animal kingdom, creating an altogether unidentifiable species. Hulking and dour, this bison-like creature sports a matted coat of synthetic fur that gives way to an oily, latex slathered head and shoulders on its other side. Like the man/woman impersonators of late night burlesque shows—male on one side, female on the other—this little brute conceals itself in a sort of identity shell game.

The intimate scaled works of Victor A. S. Robinson betray a sense of timelessness, celebrating Modernism and primitivism at the same time. Robinson reduces the physical properties of earth's beloved mammals to their most essential form. Variously hand-carved from alabaster or shaped from stoneware, these works remind us of the simplicity and intelligence of Henry Moore, the visceral integrity of Inuit sculpture and the smoothness and polish of precious stones.

In Monkeys Surrounded, artist Kathryn Frey weaves an intricate design of swollen hearts, decorative leaves, monkeys and bears, all of which surround a bear-fox that is memorialized in the center of the composition. As if deified within the dense ornamentation of its exterior, the figure appears bewildered and watchful. In Frey's Bears, her use of collage, gouache and watercolor coalesce to reveal a throng of crude black bears. Their teeth gnashing, they leap upward into an abstract abyss of patterns and shredded decorative prints. Within her primitive execution, obsessive application of repeating shapes and overlay of disparate textures, colors and forms, Frey orchestrates a composite tapestry of personal and primordial folk art.

There is a sense of sorrow in the paintings of Ester Hyneman, whose lonesome pigeons traverse the cobblestone streets of New York City's Union Square. Spare and secluded, the urban birds seem to represent the human condition as they negotiate curbsides, garbage cans and debris, decaying sidewalks and the austere metropolis around them. While Hyneman's portraits of birds are realistic, they coexist with the more abstract world of urban geometry—squares, triangles, curves and cones. Within her subtle compositions of birds surviving in an unnatural and unwelcoming environment, she discovers their "humanity" as if they were descended from an Edward Hopper cityscape.

In the delicate works of Eric Rhein, birds in flight, botanical leaf forms and lithe angels float above pages of text and images from antique medical books and bound manuscripts. Composing these images with the precision of a fine jeweler, Rhein has created finely crafted, 3-dimensional line drawings from wire and monofilament, integrating them within the composition of the book page. Since the 1990s, Rhein has been paying homage to his friends who have died from complications of the AIDS virus. He notes that it is said a person weighs exactly 21 grams less upon their death than they did alive—the exact weight of a hummingbird. This in mind, Rhein's art of memory allows the spiritual realm of metamorphosis and rebirth to coexist within a science of the mind.

Ellen Lanyon integrates the complex ornamental patterns of the Victorian age with images from the natural world. Her storybook animals cavort and commingle as if dancing on the edge of a lavishly tiled fireplace mantle. In Elk, the elaborate horns of two spirited elk are entangled as they profile above an ornate art deco pedestal. Like a vanitas painting, Lanyon's imagery suggests a world of memory and symbolism. The animals themselves appear to address issues of life's fleeting nature, the reverence of time passing and an ardent respect for the past.

Similarly, painter Elizabeth Albert chronicles a world of allegory and symbolism in which the animal kingdom reenacts fanciful tales. The mythical terrain she cultivates is inhabited by human-like wolves, bears, donkeys and dogs engaged in various fairy-tales, folk stories and fables. In Bait, two cunning bears fashion a trap by dangling a wounded fish above ground. Their demeanor belies an unsettling narrative of entrapment as the larger bear, his hairy man-legs crossed as if waiting for afternoon tea, blithely hooks the fish to a limb of the dying tree. Inquisitive and engrossed, the bears appear to have all the drama and darkness of a Grimm's fairytale. In the same way, Albert's Flood recreates the Bible's forty days and forty nights of rain in which the living world is saved by boy-girl animal couples ascending into Noah's Ark. Here Albert has fashioned a tree house of sorts, where scrambling porcupines, swimming cows, a multi-legged cat and an endless line of animals seek refuge in a tiny cottage nestled high above the flood waters in the arms of a tree.

Seeking refuge of a different kind, the message in Deborah Brown's paintings is sobering and significant, as the artist pinpoints the dangers of our diminishing natural landscape, human encroachment and global pollution. Like the popular children's movie, Happy Feet, Brown effectively uses humor to illustrate the severity of our colliding natural and technological worlds, but the seriousness of the message is clear. Taken from current events ecological data, in Brown's depictions of the animal kingdom, dolphins are seen half strangled by debris, boats known as "family cruisers" speed through the natural habitat of the great moose and birds flee from aeronautic smoke and steam. In Brown's 2005 Moonlight, two chubby black bears stand alone in the twilight amid a field of grass. The environs that appear so idyllic at first glance give way to a vision of blazing street lamps just beyond the grass and a housing project in the distance. The bears stand in the middle helplessly disoriented, trapped in a human world from which they can find no recourse. Bearing witness to the magnitude of our planet's ecological calamity, Brown takes the opportunity to dramatically comment on environmental sustainability, renewable energy, conservation and the very future, if there is to be one, of the animal kingdom—Homo Sapiens included.

Ms. Goleas is an artist/educator living in East Hampton, NY