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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

“M E N A G E R I E” - WILD ILLUSIONS by Anita Chernewski - CAPTIVE BEAUTY by Frank Noelker

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University of Rhode Island
September 15 - October 30, 2005

Public Reception for the Artists - September 21, 4 - 6 p.m.

Fidelity Investments is a major sponsor of the Fall 2005 Season

What is Man without the Beasts? If all the Beasts were gone, Man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the Beasts, soon happens to Man. All things are connected.—Chief Seattle, 1854
Quoted in Defenders (The Conservation Magazine of Defenders of Wildlife), Summer, 2005

The Museum’s habitat group dioramas, located extensively throughout its halls, are among the most renowned and beloved exhibits at the Museum.. .windows onto a world of animals, their behavior, and their habitats….The viewer of a habitat group diorama is able to travel not only across continents, but also in some cases, through time.
—American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2005

…On the other side of the debate, however, are thoughtful people who see zoos as places of horrible duress and exploitation…the best analogy for a zoo is not a prison but rather a strip club—a place where the objectifying gaze, in a coercive environment, is allowed to see what is normally hidden.—Nigel Rothfels, 2000
“Introduction: Animals and Zoos and History,” Captive Beauty: Zoo Portraits by Frank Noelker, 2000

Kingston, RI—Everywhere we turn these days, it seems, we encounter the actions of motivated animal rights activists and environmentalists, read stories of complementary human/animal genetic potential, fear epidemic consequences of mad cow disease or avian flu and ever closer to home, witness the unaccounted-for provocation of domestic animals suddenly to turn wild and attack.

We cannot seem to escape news of animals’ conflicted roles, real and imagined, in our popular culture or in our personal lives. From a variety of recent examples we have only to conjure the high-profile tiger mauling that debilitated the act of Siegfried & Roy; the troubling Werner Herzog film, Grizzly Man, a chronicle of Timothy Treadwell’s self-documenting, ultimately self-annihilating adventures in befriending a community of grizzly bears in Alaska; the argument about combating the critical endangerment of ecosystems by letting predatory animals loose in a “re-wilding” of North America; the scientist-administered Newport Farm acquired by a Campbell Soup Company heiress for her SVF Foundation to stockpile the genetic traits from colonial era breeds of livestock for future food chain integration; or the near-sensationalistic local story of mortal injuries suffered by a newborn from the family dog in Coventry, Rhode Island, resulting thereafter in the dog’s own murder.
The Kingston exhibition in a contemporary art exhibition context

Increasingly in the art world today exhibitions in many different arenas have been pondering creatively the “backstories” for various felt or observed animal/human interactions. One extremely docile example is a touring show called Art and the Animal, the latest product of The Society of Animal Artists, It highlights the artistry of an aesthetically and conceptually conservative group of canine art specialists in painting and sculpture. Venues like Disney’s Orlando site have premiered prior exhibitions generated by the close-spirited international artists and naturalists who comprise this all-member organization.

In contrast, a group exhibition including several freshly commissioned works, Becoming Animal: Art in the Animal Kingdom, at Mass MoCa through February 2006, intends to “explore the gap between human and animal existence.” (A companion historical exhibition, Creature Discomfort, is mounted in Mass MoCA’s Prints & Drawings Gallery.) Becoming Animal is predicated in large part on Steve Baker’s book, The Postmodern Animal, 2000. The British author ponders what he calls the alternately animal-endorsing and animal-skeptical engagements of postmodern art. Either way, the sense of proximity between human and animal realms today seems to complement our perception of a less livable world, an ever-shrinking (and warming) planet.

Two other examples should be cited. Last year celebrated Texas-born photographer Jane Hinds Bidaut published her politically charged Animalerie, an examination of conditions in French pet stores. Hers is an alarming but suggestive look at the commodification of animals, many spending their lives in containers. Alternatively, this past summer the DFN Gallery in downtown New York presented Animal Tales, the narratives by 34 visual artists variously expressing empathy for animals wild and domestic “as characters in a universal story.”

The exhibition in Kingston

The exhibition to open September 15 in the Photography Gallery, Fine Arts Center Galleries, thus has many and varied backdrops and filiations, but its focus on the juxtaposition of two likeminded but medialogically divergent photographers creates a fascinating exhibition ambience. The URI Gallery’s Menagerie presents a dozen prints each selected from New York artist (and teacher at NYU and The New School) Anita Chernewski’s Wild Illusions together with works from Connecticut based (Prof. of Art at U.Conn) Frank Noelker’s extensive Captive Beauty series, the first time these artists’ photographs have been juxtaposed.

Chernewski is renowned in the “alternative photography” movement for her Vandyke prints. Her intimately scaled images, mixed with elaborate chemistry, derive from the process first invented by the English astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842. Brown in tonality, these photographs are named after and recall 17th century Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s brown pigment. But Vandyke prints are photographic. They are contact prints wherein negatives are made by being placed on photo-sensitized watercolor paper. Paper and negative then are sandwiched under glass and exposed to sun or other ultraviolet light for 5–60 minutes and finally washed, developed and fixed. There is great “form and content” unity suggested by Chernewski’s prints in their vintage sepia look coloring her personal subject matter: taxidermied animals set in contextual dioramas that were developed by and for the American Museum of Natural History, New York, the prestigious institution founded in1869.

In formal terms, Noelker’s photographs provide a huge contrast to Chernewski’s. He, too, photographs diverse wild animals in a created context, but his are large-scale full color images that examine still living animals and their specific contrived environments in nominally civilized zoos across the world. Taken together as “Menagerie,” the images of Wild Illusions and Captive Beauty confront yet confide in one another and a visual/conceptual conversation about what is real and what is not ensues.

Chernewski’s images are retrospective in character. They penetrate and activate the historical (19th century) “natural history” mindset, including its sense of public display. Her images of animal specimens in their “true” environments/habitats unnervingly capture the alertness of real animals, even those becoming extinct, as if interrupted in moving about in nature.

The diorama format and taxidermied specimens are closely associated with the grand installations (exhibition halls) of the famous museum in New York that is Chernewski’s source material. As museum publicity points out in 2005, Darwin’s Origin of Species was published only 10 years before the museum’s founding, so much knowledge of life on earth still was primitive. However, as her photographic vision and warm tonalities emphasize, the true-to- life character of the historical animal specimens combines seamlessly with particular contextual/scientific truths of fieldwork undertaken in nature. Moreover, as museum curators today state openly, the museum in earlier days made strategic inroads in developing the exhibition form itself as a scientific means of awakening visitors to wildlife issues. At that time, disappearing wildlife (bison herds) in western U.S. and other then-contemporary victims of railroad growth were societal issues raised through those very displays interpreted by Chernewski.

Senior Project Manager Steve Quinn of the New York institution points out that the term “diorama” first was coined by Daguerre (of daguerreotype fame) who patented it in 1822. From the Greek it means “to see through”—as in a theatre’s proscenium frame that conceals vanishing points. As Quinn explains, science museums adopted the theatre convention a century later and still afterwards incorporated convincing painted backgrounds for scenic completion. Aesthetically, the contextual drama of the diorama becomes Chernewski’s versatile photographic instrument.

Together with major advances in taxidermy that also are identified with the institution called the American Museum of Natural History, the dioramas as photographed by Chernewski are exceptionally powerful and engaging in their sense of address. This is precisely what staff member Steven Quinn champions in stressing from a position inside the institution, “The function of the display is to recreate that personal encounter with wildlife or with animals in the field.” (See Quinn transcript posted on Museum website.)

Strangely, and in retrospect, Chernewski’s Wild Illusions act as counter-models to what we usually define as the appropriate housing for “live collections,” zoos. Noelker’s large photographs of the last several years comment boldly on the invasive consequence of displaying “live” specimens in zoos in Europe and across the U.S. The oppressively false character of the painted and carved ambience of the animals’ habitats, frequently seeming to mimic their own markings, is one notable layer of each study.

A sense of Captive Beauty is pervasive in other contrivances of the modern zoo that emerged ca. 1890 and are highlighted by Noelker, just when the Museum of Natural History achieved its legendary animated exhibition techniques. As zoo historian Nigel Rothels explains in Noelker’s photographic book called Captive Beauty, it was at this time that the modern zoo first took its shape, through design of zoological gardens by and for the bourgeoisie vs. architectural fantasies (residual in many zoos) of an aristocratic past. The modern zoo prominently introduced landscape settings, a believable sense of naturalism in its constructed environments. Such naturalism is, of course, false, since the live animals are captives, but studies show that the visitor remembers his/her visit with these mock settings, as Rothfels writes, “…it is less important what is shown than how it is seen…how the animal is perceived.” Noelker emphasizes this phenomenon by typically showing solitary animals in their staged constructions, constrained if not static creatures who are pictorially pleasing subjects, completing visual tableaux made by and for human consumption. Yet Noelker finds very personal ways to reveal rather than to conceal the animal, as Rothfels points out, to Noelker the animal is “there to be seen.”

In contemporary terms, Noelker’s and Chernewski’s photographs have a great deal to say to one another and to us. Each photographer also understands the period philosophies of the artists and scientists that inform their respective subjects and each refers to these in their own visual interpretations. But Chernewski and Noelker are empathic counterparts: The former resurrects the life of her taxidermied subjects and the latter challenges viewers to understand that his subjects still are very much alive.

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The Gallery is closed on state and academic holidays.
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