October 8, 2009

Art with a four-legged provenance

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 handler assistant. And when he was done, well I've seen worse hung on friends' refrigerators ... painted by their exceptionally gifted offspring. Actually, if you didn't know... well, some of the animals' paintings didn't seem that out of place on the gallery's walls. Only when you looked closely did you realize that many of the works were mostly colorful footprints made by Lily the stork, or Blue-Green the penguin. But very gifted footprints...

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.)


  1. Please take a look at the unemployment,hunger and poverty problems of PEOPLE in Racine. As long as HUMAN BEINGS are deprived of the bare necessities, such animal follies are worse then ridiculous--they're obscene.

  2. We don't need a zoo--we need practical help for our fellow man.

  3. To many unemployed workers here, pampering animals while neglecting people and their needs is pure evil. As for playing with animal art, the people responsible for this farce should be taken on a tour of the 'hood.

  4. Maybe some of those critters ought to be turned into chow. I know regular Joes who see dinner when they gaze at the Ankole Watusi cattle in the zoo.

  5. Someday the government will close Jay's jungle and spend some cash on people.

  6. Heather in Caledonia10/09/2009 8:43 AM

    I won't make any comments on the quality of this "art" and how it compares with other "modern"-type paintings... I think that speaks for itself.

    But, I did want to say that the zoo does employ people to take care of animals, clean, sell tickets and food, etc. By keeping the zoo going, we are employing a good number of people, so this money is not just spent on animals.

  7. Dear Heather, Yes, the zoo does employ people. Then, again, so does a casino or a bordello. The bottom line is that we don't need a zoo in a dying company town. I like Jay. However, I'd like him better if he were running a world class zoo on either coast or teaching future zoo curators at a fine university. Frankly, his talent is wasted in Racine.

  8. Good point anon9:10...

    This city should open a casino and a bordello (or two)... that will employ lots of people, boost tourism, put us on the map, and start to drive down unemployment (and thus hunger and poverty!)

  9. I really think some needs to give Anon a teddy bear to cuddle. I think he's lonely.

  10. Dear Dan, If he's the guy I think he is, that fellow has plenty of company and, hence, no need for a teddy bear. Alas, there are lots of people who are weary of our corrupt economic system and want to replace it with something better. Let's hope they rely on legal, non-violent methods only.

  11. No... He really needs his Teddy to calm him down. If he had a Teddy, he wouldn't be so angry and would learn to enjoy life more opposed to always finding things to complain about. If you find him, give him a Teddy.

  12. Dear Dan M., Assuming that he's the man I suspect he is, he'd get a good laugh out of that bear.

  13. I think it is cute. It is art and they raised money for the zoo. What is wrong with that? This was a creative way for them to get funding. Some people will rain on every parade.

    Of course there are people starving and out of work. But Geez, kinda hard to target the zoo for that problem.

    RUSD gets 250 million in their budget.