To think wildlife art is only about paintings that depict the ultimate trophy elk washed in the glow of an autumnal sunset at the foot of the perfectly carved mountain canyon would be to ignore thousands of years of human interaction with animals. There is the actual interaction, as in hunting for survival or domesticating animals for companionship. Then there is the spiritual interaction through mythology and religion. The National Wildlife Art Museum has paintings, drawings and sculptures representing all of these different interactions. The museum is a vital and important part of our artistic heritage in this community and continues to grow in its vast approach to challenging our understanding of the world of living creatures that surround us. No exhibit better displays this then Human/Nature, hanging now through April 21, 2013.
While it is a small exhibit, with only around twenty pieces on display, it is a powerful one. The earliest piece in the show is a woodcut on paper from the 16th century. It is very small but very captivating. It depicts a stag hunt on the grounds of a nobleman. The hunter is depicted on horseback and is surrounded by his hounds, his estate towering in the background. Entire forests were set aside at this time for these types of hunts, where the hunted were looked after by gamekeepers there to make sure the hunt was successful. I kept thinking about those living outside the grounds, the people of the community surrounding the nobleman, and what their hunt would look like as a woodcut, how to them the trophy kill would be for the survival of themselves and their family. This is an early piece of propaganda – an image of the local nobility out to conquer nature, to kill the wild beast, to be the one who slays with dignity and finesse – regardless of the fact that the wild beast is contained and raised for such an act.
The most recent piece in the show is a painting by Barbara Kassel, painted earlier this year. It is titled Wet Weather and depicts a view out of a New York City apartment. What we see of the interior of the apartment is a table covered with items that symbolically depict the biblical story of the building of Noah’s Ark. There is a blue print of the arc as well as a protractor, which measure actual arcs within drawings. There is a line of animal statues moving in one direction across the table. An olive branch sits in a small pool of water, and above and to the right of the table is a mobile with cardboard cutouts of five different species of birds. The peace dove is the only one with its wings straight up, as if it is about to take off in flight out the window. Fittingly, the height of its wings is on line with the top of the construction of the Peace Tower at the World Trade Center in the distance. The sky beyond is stormy and gives the feeling of change, while the reflection in the windows across the street depicts a clear sky with a sliver of a moon; a commentary on how we see the past with glorified clarity, the future with uncertainty. Wet Weather is a painting about exactly that; looking back to see forward. It is about the grandeur of the biblical story of Noah’s Arc, about the symbolism of a ship containing all of the creatures of the world and carrying them to survival. It is about taking these ideas and comparing them in contrast to the symbolism of rebuilding at Ground Zero, of building a Freedom Tower, a piece of molded metal and glass that is to symbolize for many what the curved, carved wood of the Arc means for others.
Nearly all the pieces in the show carry this much weight in them. Many are heavily symbolic and carry wonderful, openly interpretive narratives. There are pieces by Francisco Goya, Albrecht Durer, Robert Bateman and an amazing painting by Arther Wardle. It is a show that, again, while small, is not short on exploration. I suggest going, taking your time, and letting your mind go. Wildlife art is not short on narrative or creativity if viewers themselves are not lacking either.