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Group Show Tries to Mine The Symbiotic Relationships Between Man and Beast

Lisa Dillin's "And Here We Will Build An Igloo."

By Kate Noonan | Posted 10/1/2008

Laura Amussen's latest effort as curator of Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery examines the curious ways in which the lives of humans and animals interrelate and ultimately intertwine. Darker themes interplay with works of charming novelty in the stirring collection that makes up Bestiarum Vocabulum, and thus explore the broad spectrum of the human/animal relationship and the many facets that compose this complex but all too essential symbiosis.

As the catalog explains, the exhibition's hard-to-pronounce title refers to a popular genre of medieval texts--Bestiarum Vocabulum, or bestiary--which used the situations of sometimes mythical flora and fauna to provide its human readers with a moral guide of sorts. The exhibition includes the works of eight artists: Jessie Boyko, Melissa Dickenson, Lisa Dillin, Evan Morgan, Jenny Mullins, David Page, Beverly Ress, and Gowri Savoor, each of whom approaches the decidedly relevant issue of human/animal relationships from a different angle. Where Boyko, Dickenson, and Dillin celebrate the animal world in paint and sculpture with a playful approach, Ress and Page dig deeper into the more challenging and often ignored parts of the human/animal relationship.

Boyko opens the show with a grouping of three large-scale oil paintings depicting fantastical scenes of jungle creatures in bold but semitranslucent washes of color. The works, painted with a palpable enthusiasm, express the artist's belief that for humans, watching animals in their natural habitat is one of life's greatest luxuries. And so, as in "Tapestry," Boyko brings together predator and prey, which might not coexist so peacefully in the wild, to remind us of the preciousness of this often unappreciated and abused natural wonder.

Where Boyko's works resonate with a loud, almost tropical rhythm, Ress' quiet and impeccably precise works on paper focus on a moment of concentrated intimacy. Each of Ress' six small colored pencil drawings, centrally placed on large 30-by-22-inch sheets, deals directly with the subject of death. And by viewing Ress' sometimes unidentifiable subjects, we are reminded of our own mortality. Here, Ress attempts to illustrate that all lives are equal by underscoring the irrefutable fact that no matter the species, we will all come to the same end. In addition to drawing with pencil, Ress expands her approach by cutting, tearing, and reassembling the pages, as in "Skin," a draped work on paper that exists dually as a drawing and sculpture. Ress carefully tears away the uppermost layer to create a continuous, organically moving line. The effect is uncannily reminiscent of a scar: Although the torn line has its own unique texture and slightly lighter color, it is part of the same whole.

Page also tackles the issue of death, and his leather sculptures confront head-on the human consumption of animals, perhaps the most vital if unpleasant way in which humans and animals interact. Page's three disconcerting pieces employ a dark but subtle sense of humor to expose the often overlooked role of animal as both "dinner" and "accessory." And by using leather as his primary sculptural material, Page gives the animal a too-close-for-comfort, starring role. His massive "Groot Bees (Large Beast)" hangs from the wall like a hide stretched for tanning, yet here the leather is no longer in its rawest state. In addition to being tanned, the leather is repeatedly pierced with metal hardware and affixed to the gallery wall with grommeted leather restraining belts. Not only does this give "Groot Bees" an uncomfortable sadomasochistic vibe, but it blatantly reminds us of the reality in which animals are born, raised, and ultimately slaughtered by the hands of man.

In a jarring juxtaposition against Page's unsettling works are the irresistibly charming soft sculptures by Dillin. Her two interactive pieces, "And Here We Will Build an Igloo" and "Bear Hug Sleeping Unit," use a familiar and comforting childhood material, stuffed animals, to capture not only our attention, but also our affection, poignantly illustrating the ingrained human desire to connect with nature. Dillin's tactile and slightly anthropomorphic pieces create an immediate impulse to interact with art in a way that few works accomplish. Not only do we want to examine each piece as a sculpture, but we inevitably want to pet, hug, and, in the case of "Bear Hug Sleeping Unit," cuddle with the works. Here, Dillin movingly articulates her point, that humans mass-produce nature in an attempt to commune with it, and in doing so, she creates the most relatable and accessible works in this unique and thought-provoking show.

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