Postcard from the Nevada Museum of Art #2

Since 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, has convened its Art + Environment Conference, a forum for wide-ranging conversation about how art can help us better understand humans’ place in the natural world. This year’s conference went on earlier this month, and writer and artist Aaron Rothman was in attendance. He’s sharing a series of reports and reflections from the conference, the second of which is below. Top image: Fighting Stags by Moonlight, 1900. Oil on canvas, JKM Collection®, National Museum of Wildlife Art. © Georges Frédéric Rötig.

I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about my hopes for some unexpected revelations at Art + Environment. These hopes were met before the conference officially began, when I arrived early at the museum to get a good look at the exhibitions before the crowds and kibitzing started. Late Harvest, the largest of the half-dozen-plus A+E associated exhibitions at the museum, mixes classic wildlife paintings from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth century with works from the 21st century that are made, in whole or in part, from taxidermied animals. It is a genuinely bizarre exhibit, equally revealing and confounding in its exploration of our complex and contradictory relationship with wild animals.

The first thing that jumped out at me in Late Harvest was the amazing beauty of the paintings, from the collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming (whose curator, Adam Duncan Harris, curated the show with Nevada Museum of Art’s JoAnne Northrup). Working in a post-Darwin world, the painters of these images—including Joseph Wolf, Carl Rungius, Georges Frédéric Rötig, and many others—were influenced by the theory of evolution and an understanding of the interconnectedness of life. They undertook intensive field observations to present a high degree of naturalism and accuracy in depicting animals and their habitats. The paintings are indeed stunning in their attention to detail and visceral sense of reality.

A good example is Rötig’s Fighting Stags by Moonlight, which perfectly captures the atmosphere of a partly-clouded full-moon night, the deer’s vaporized breath making palpable the chill in the air. In the end, however, the paintings betray an idealized and human-centered view of wildlife. No matter how exacting the representation, I couldn’t escape interpreting the paintings, at least partly, by seeing the animals as symbolic stand-ins for scenes of human drama—like those stags, who are fighting for the attention of does hesitantly watching from the distance—or as targets in a hunter’s sight.

The contemporary artists working with taxidermied animals, in contrast, are very conscious of their symbolic or metaphoric use of animals to explore human affairs and experience. A flamboyantly dressed fox holding a handgun and a Blackberry, by Yinka Shonibare, is meant as a comment on racially charged riots in London; while the artist team of Elmgreen and Dragset take a jab at the art-viewing experience in a work that has a white lab rat staring at a sleek white abstract sculpture that looms over it. These are individual creatures, however, not abstract representations, and despite the metaphorical intent of many of these works, each animal’s bodily presence asserts itself as a singular physical fact, not reducible to pure symbolism.

nanoq, flat out and bluesome, a collaborative project by Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, included in the show and presented by the artists at the conference, is an interesting effort to bridge this divide. Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson attempted to locate and photograph every taxidermied polar bear in Great Britain, then researched the place of origin of each and the story of its capture and killing. In doing so, they reassert the individuality of each bear, point to its life as a wild animal, and reveal the cultural context that turned the polar bear into a potent symbol of European exploration and conquest.

Detail from untitled #1240 (Black Cloud), 2007-2008, by Petah Coyne.

Also of note from the exhibition is a room devoted to several large works by Petah Coyne. Large birds and the occasional small mammal are engulfed in masses of waxy artificial flowers, which fade from dark red to black and, in one piece, long tangles of human hair. (Talking about these works at the conference, Coyne took pains to explain that the birds came from a program to rehabilitate wild waterfowl. From what I learned, all of the artists in the show were careful to use responsibly sourced animals.) These works do not lend themselves to easy interpretation. I was reminded of black-slicked birds from our too-frequent oil spills, but the delicate beauty of the flowers complicated this reading. Coyne’s works create their own nebulous zone between the physical world and some space deep in the psyche.

At one point, I began to wonder if the physical presence of the animals, not the art, was what drew me in to this show. On leaving Reno, I stopped at a taxidermy display of big-horn sheep at the airport. Magnificent creatures, to be sure, but in that context they seemed inert specimens, drained of vitality. I realized that what makes Late Harvest compelling is the active tension it creates between actual animals and their representation—the irreconcilable and unavoidable simultaneity of animal-as-symbol and animal-as-physical-reality.

Big-horn sheep at Reno’s airport.

For me, one particular work embodied the shows contradictions. In Nicholas Galanin’s Inert Wolf, a wolf’s front half seems to struggle to rise off the floor while its rear legs stretch out into a rug with decorative fringe. The wall label explains that it is meant by the artist to represent his Native Alaskan community. I was immediately moved coming upon this wolf, my pleasure at being in such close proximity to the intense physicality of this glorious animal mixed with unease at its fate as an art object.

My initial reaction was that it was somehow wrong for this creature to be turned into a symbol of human matters. I soon realized, however, that my own sense of attachment to this wolf was in large part because its pose and expression reminded me of my beloved Labrador’s last moments of life, a year ago. Looking at this baffling show, one thing seems certain: as curator JoAnne Northrup explained, “When we look at animals we see ourselves.”

Aaron Rothman is a Phoenix-based artist and writer whose work explores contemporary issues in landscape. He’s photo editor at Places Journal, where he writes essays and curates art and photography features on landscape, architecture, and urbanism. He attended the 2014 Art + Environment Conference with support from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Installation view of Revolution Kid (Fox), 2012 is by Yinka Shonibare MBE; Red Fox, 1933 is by Carl Ringius and from the exhibit Late Harvest.