A preponderance of indirect, often tongue-in-cheek views of our imperfect relations with the natural world energizes an ambitiously inclusive exhibition at both Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton.
Curated by CSUF exhibition design graduate students Jeannie Denholm and Maggi Owens (Owens also is curator of the Guggenheim Gallery), "Confronting Nature: Silenced Voices" (through Oct. 8) presents work by 22 artists who examine the curious mixture of sentimentality, cruelty and neglect that typifies the contemporary urbanite's relationship to nature.
By transforming various models--hunting trophies, natural-history dioramas, stuffed and mounted pets--the artists invoke a range of connections between human and animal experience. The megaphone rant of ecological doomsaying is virtually absent in this show, although a few artists confuse wide-eyed pathos for allusive metaphor.
At the top of the food chain is Jeffrey Vallance's celebrated mixed-media installation "Blinky, the Friendly Hen," a piece that probes matters of intense seriousness under cover of a ridiculous conceit.
Vallance's straight-faced memorial to a supermarket chicken buried in the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery invokes a blend of scientific and religious explanations of what happens after death, with folk art-style paintings of a chicken's life cycle and miraculous apparitions, a gold-framed Foster Farms plastic bag and a video (by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto) showing a pathologist's analysis of Blinky's bones and the chicken's heavenward ascent.
Employing unlikely materials or merging seemingly unrelated images or experiences are other key strategies.
Scottish artist David Mach imitates the cranial contours of various wild animals with bundles of wooden matches. While the balls and shuttlecock stuffed in the mouths of these animals recall the helpless condition of a trussed roast or the domesticated status of a family pet made to fetch, these dumb beasts would become aggressive fireballs if anyone chose to "strike" them.
By mounting a pair of turkey wings on a harp, Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz gives a bird known for its ugliness a mysterious hybrid attractiveness. When the viewer approaches "Beauty," its wings flap, and a rod flicks over the strings, producing an abrupt "squawk" of eerie, silvery sound.
The aural experience is the strongest aspect of Jacki Apple's tunnel-like installation, "Aviary of the Lost (The Culture of Disappearance #4)." The too-literal device of having viewers slog through a heap of bird feathers, past chalked lists of extinct birds that are almost unreadable in the semi-darkness is almost redeemed by the unearthly recorded sound of a great beating of wings and a melding of human and bird voices.
Michele Gambetta's silver gelatin prints of mutant creatures made with disparate animal parts evoke the worlds of black magic and fetish fantasy, endowing the animal kingdom with a strangely powerful allure that mirrors (in twisted, exaggerated form) its actual hold on the human psyche.
Conversely, John Huggins finds a striking \o7 memento mori\f7 intensity in everyday slices of death: road kills. Served up on a slab of gray asphalt, an Eastern gray squirrel surrounded by fallen autumn leaves could be the latter-day equivalent of a William Harnett still life.
The camp approach insinuates its own brand of overkill in several pieces that reflect the anthropomorphizing compulsion to endow animals with human frailties.
Gregory Crewsden's lush color photographs give the fusty diorama a sickly new theatricality. In "Untitled (Fox With Grapes)," the viscous globe of the dead fox's eyeball compares with the dewy shine on the luscious spill of grapes he greedily and fatally pursued in the Aesop fable.
Bill Scanga (son of sculptor Italo) coyly wraps different-colored scarves around the "necks' of tiny dead fish in test tubes--conflating human vanity and scientists' methods of differentiation between specimens.
In a different vein, the late Mark Niblock-Smith's "Buddy"--a shabby hunting trophy with tiny red-and-white knitted caps covering the antlers--suggests a pathetic tribute to a deceased buck from a grieving Santa.
Niblock-Smith and Terry Allen are perhaps the only artists in the show to make romantic images of loss that don't seem hackneyed.
Niblock-Smith cannily mingles sentiment with kitsch in "Memory Deer," a pair of real deer hoofs holding up a faded black-and-white photo of a forest with leafless trees and no other signs of life: a pathetic token of a hunted creature that proffers a sign of its own disappearance.
Allen shapes a wistful yet cynical meditation on death and hope ("Missing Footsteps") with a stuffed black crow, a painting of a modern Buddha sitting on a coffin and a laconic, fatalistic text.
The other well-known artists in the show--the late Edward Kienholz (collaborating with his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz) and British artist Damien Hirst--have lower-than-expected profiles, however.