It was your typical art show opening: a table piled high with hors d'oeuvres and wine and a roomful of well-dressed gallery-goers munching, sipping and pondering the new paintings on the wall. Pointing at this or that. Leaning forward for a closer look. Trading cliches about the surreal examples of colorful expressionism (What?) before them.
As a Washington Post critic once wrote, "Talking about art fixes it in the memory; it makes the evanescent experience of art more real."
Even when you think (art cliche No. 46), "My kid could do that."
Even when the art was painted by a skunk, or by a rhinoceros.
Yes, it was the Racine Zoo's second annual Animal Artisans: A Gallery Showing, at Monfort's Fine Art Gallery on Main Street, a gallery which usually specializes in works by more conventional artists.
Gallery owner Miriam Hoyum seemed somewhat conflicted when I attempted to bait her with the questions, "Doesn't this show undermine all you believe about fine art? Doesn't it promulgate the idea that "art" is anything we say it is -- and denigrate the other works on your walls?"
She took my hectoring in good humor, noting that the animal artisans' show would remain on the gallery's wall for just one night, to benefit the Zoo. But she also defended the art -- up to a point -- by noting that the various animal artistes demonstrated a clear understanding about what they were doing, had their own artistic vision, as it were. The orangutan who strings glass beads into necklaces, for example, very definitely rejects the beads he doesn't like, pushing them away; he strings a few beads and then removes those that -- to his finely developed eye? -- don't complement the others. And the rhino who paints with his lower lip -- you have to be there, I'm told -- is very deliberate about the pigments he chooses. And stops when he decides each painting is done.
And so, the gallery-goers turned their attention toward the evening's visiting artist. A porcupine was originally scheduled, but -- I was told on good authority -- he "copped an attitude." Artistic temperament, donchaknow. Instead, the gallery enjoyed a painting demonstration by Stinky, the skunk.
Stinky did his thing like the professional he is, carefully dipping his feet into the pigment and then spreading it on the canvas. Only occasionally did he have to be reminded why he was there, and all that took was a clicker wielded by his
Stinky's effort was auctioned off for $75. A necklace strung by Max, the orangutan, also went for $75. Could you get that for one of those paintings on your refrigerator? I didn't think so. Other paintings were sold via a silent auction.
Note: No animals were harmed in the making of this exhibition. All money raised will benefit the zoo and its inhabitants.)