In cities throughout America, fracturing infrastructure and safety force cutbacks have opened fissures through which deer, raccoons, coyotes, and other wildlife can return to the land which was once theirs. The Galleries at Cleveland State University would have its visitors believe the borders between myth and metaphor and fact have also opened, letting impossible animals have their day in the sun.
Animatopoeia: A Most Peculiar (Post Modern) Bestiary assembles the work of 19 artists pondering humanity's relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom, including those species conjured into existence to serve human poetic expression.
In "Ceremony" by Brooklyn-based Kate Clark, the artist affixed sculpted human faces to three taxidermied antelope bodies, complete with towering, V-shaped pairs of black horns. The man-animal hybrids are posed with their eyes fixed at one point, and conical ears tilted in the same direction.
In the first second one captures sight of them, they appear to have just assumed that pose, like deer who straighten up and freeze when startled. However, the man-antelopes' faces are flat calm; the one on the far right tilts its head ever so slightly in curiosity.
Some artists try to cross divides between species not by mixing and matching body parts, but by representing animals in pitiful situations.
Cleveland painter JenMarie Zeleznak's watercolors are empty white spaces free of gravity through which float squirrels and raccoons in limp postures. The images haunt the viewer because the animals appear distressed for no visible cause. Their bodies have no injuries, and the white void poses no threats. There is no tangible object to fear, but nothing to hold onto either, no escape.
Jim Leach's sculpture "From a Ceremony" sprawls a plaster-white pig on the floor, alive or dead, with eyes tightly shut and a mouth curled in what, on a human face, would unmistakably be a frown. A rope tied around its waist winds up into a noose propped up on a black wooden chair with no bottom. It might be the most emotionally powerful piece in the show. The rope suggests an ordeal of violence or captivity that is ongoing, or at a quiet and tragic end.
For more artists still, animals are stand-ins for human experience. Washington state's Beth Cavener Stichter's "In Bocca Al Lupo" sets a lovingly carved ceramic clay wolf on a pedestal, only to have the beast belch forth a torrent of vomit across the better length of the North Gallery's floor. Yet we are not invited to point and laugh, as if at a green and stumbling college student. The pink jet streaming from the wolf's mouth is full of butterflies, silky sheets, and bouquets. It is a thing of beauty, even though it also happens to be repulsive. For Stichter, vomiting is a necessary function of the canine's body—and, by extension, our own. It is a beautiful body, and if we are to affirm its beauty, we must also accept its unsavory leaking.
It is difficult to recall an exhibition in recent memory filled with as many surprises as this one. Yet the displayed items are not merely exciting for their newness, but have a power to keep viewers trying to figure them out long after leaving.