Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Art safari

With three-part animal-themed exhibit, the WAG is where the wild things are

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A WEEK ago, a dog named Peggy convinced her owner, Winnipeg Art Gallery curator Mary Reid, to take her for a later-thanusual walk.

It was about 8 p.m. The sidewalks had turned from puddled to icy. Reid slipped, took a heavy fall and broke her wrist.

She couldn't miss the irony that her devotion to her husky-cross companion -- which she admits is "a bit obsessive" -- left her hampered by an arm cast for the installation of Bestial Encounters, a major animal-themed exhibition that has just opened at the WAG and runs to June 12.

"I'm a bit nutty about her, but she could kill me easily," Reid, curator of contemporary art and photography, says about the big dog. "We desire to be close to animals, but they are wild creatures. The closeness is tempered with fear, and a potential to harm.

"Do animals do more harm to people, or do people do more harm to animals?... I was quite interested in communication between the two, and these notions of possession and control."

Reid wasn't interested in "warm and fuzzy" or sentimental interpretations of animals in the show of 113 works, which range from paintings, drawings and sculpture to photography, fabric, collage and mixed-media works.

The overall theme is interaction. Unable to share a common language with four-legged creatures, Reid notes, we still try to communicate, often projecting human qualities onto them.

We mythologize and cartoonify them, slaughter them, imprison them for our entertainment, teach them tricks, destroy their habitats and wear their fur. Can we ever know them?

Bestial Encounters could be called a three-ring art circus. There are three components, two of them bodies of work recently acquired for the WAG's permanent holdings.

The Winnipeg Alphabestiary was a 2005 project by Border Crossings magazine. Twenty-six accomplished artists who call Winnipeg home -- though some don't currently live here -- were each commissioned to illustrate a letter of the alphabet on an animal theme, from Wanda Koop's Ape to Shaun Morin's Zebra.

The second component is Captive, a series of 58 exquisitely composed colour images by German-born, Toronto-based photographer Volker Seding. The lensman, who died in 2007, spent 15 years visiting more than 500 zoos to capture poignant images of exotic animals in captivity.

The third component is 29 animal-themed works chosen by Reid from the WAG vaults, including pieces by prominent artists such as Norval Morrisseau, Carl Beam, Diana Thorneycroft, Fastwürms, John McEwen, Eric Cameron, Marcel Dzama and Colleen Cutschall. A few artists appear in both the Alphabestiary and the vault works.

The whole show is deliberately soundtracked by chirps and squawks from an adjoining gallery, where the solo bird-themed exhibition Erika Lincoln: The Singing Condition is running concurrently.

Bestial Encounters touches on hunting, the extinction or mutation of species, and the tension between tame and wild in domesticated creatures.

Marconi (the title plays on "wireless communication") is a sculpture by McEwen that dominates one room's floor. It's a life-size steel silhouette of a dog that sits obediently, without being tethered. Its empty collar, attached to a wire that slides on a long, snaking cable, is nearby.

In Untitled (Echo), a sculpture by Cynthia Short Hurley, a toddler looks directly into a dog's open mouth, where there appears to be a baby's head. Is the dog birthing or devouring someone?

In the show's many works that merge animal imagery with something else, there are aboriginal spirit animals, critters that are part-human, and animals that are part-machine.

The works in The Winnipeg Alphabestiary range from quirky, witty and fanciful to savage and disturbing. A few are adult-themed.

Thorneycroft's creation for the letter R is Rat Boy, a drawing of a cartoonish rat engaged in autoerotic self-strangulation with his own pink tail as a noose.

Andrew Valko's L painting, Leopard, shows a woman reclining in leopard-print-trimmed underwear, her face obscured by the face of a leopard on a digital screen.

The solemn captives in Seding's haunting zoo photos -- rhinos, giraffes, elephants, apes, lions, bears -- are framed in the contexts of their cages or faux-natural enclosures. The photographer, Reid says, would spend countless hours -- even days -- waiting for the perfect shot.

Are the creatures as forlorn as they seem? Or is the artist creating that impression?

For Reid, the beasts are speaking. "Those animals are communicating in a silent form, through their eyes, through their body language," she says. "There's a sense of resignation, loss, broken will... pleading... defeat."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 A1

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