The Winnipeg Alphabestiary
At the SFU Gallery, Burnaby Campus, until July 20
Facing the Animal
At the Or Gallery until June 29
As wild fauna disappear worldwide and domestic creatures increase in number—both phenomena a consequence of our greed for more and ever more possessions and consumables—animals are enjoying a renaissance in visual art. Or so it seems in two separate but complementary exhibitions. The Winnipeg Alphabestiary, on view at the Simon Fraser University Gallery in Burnaby, and Facing the Animal, at the Or Gallery in Vancouver, amuse and delight us while also examining our complex relationships with the nonhuman creatures that share our planet.
Bestiaries, originating in medieval times, are collections of illustrations of familiar and fantastical animals, often with moral messages attached to them. In the past century, children’s literature has conflated the bestiary with the alphabet book, to create the “A is for aardvark, B is for buffalo” form of amusement and instruction. In 2005, the Winnipeg-based arts magazine Border Crossings commissioned individual alphabestiary contributions from 26 Winnipeg artists, including Wanda Koop, Marcel Dzama, Janet Werner, Michael Dumontier, Aganetha Dyck, Eleanor Bond, and Neil Farber. The resulting works have been touring the country and have now landed, like Noah’s Ark, on Burnaby Mountain.
There’s a wondrous array of real and imaginary beasts on view, from Koop’s small painting of an unsettlingly human ape, standing upright beside a Day-Glo–orange fire, to Shaun Morin’s cartoon-cute zebra, cradling an umbrella and snoozing in a cave. These and a number of other alphabestiarial images make both implicit and explicit reference to the primordial human-animal connection. Andrew Valko’s Leopard is a photo-realist painting of a young woman in skimpy underwear trimmed with leopard-spotted fabric, lying on a leather sofa and holding an electronic image of a leopard’s face in front of her own. Erica Eyres has drawn a sorrowful dog dressed in a striped jacket, and Sarah Anne Johnson has sketched a woman in a unicorn costume, bent over and glancing backward as if waiting to be mounted. Much here is suggestive of how ancient myths and totemic beliefs about part-human, part-animal entities find contemporary expression in the sexualized marketing of animal skins and the sentimental anthropomorphizing of our creature companions.
The subject of “dog men”—of the legends of human-animal hybrids—was addressed by Toronto artist Bill Burns in a recent talk at the Or Gallery. Burns is represented along with Julie Andreyev and Mary Anne Barkhouse in Facing the Animal, a show curated by University of British Columbia MA candidate Tarah Hogue. All three artists employ dog imagery as a metaphor for our relationship with the natural world.
Like photographer William Wegman and his famous Weimaraners, Andreyev collaborates with her two miniature poodle-schnauzer crosses, Tom and Sugi, who perform in a number of her videos. Aria, a large projection with a complex soundtrack, consists of straight-up shots of mountains, rivers, forests, and alpine meadows, which serve as the backdrop to the energetic to-ing and fro-ing of the dogs. The meadow is also the stage for Tom’s vocalizing, as he whines and yips an “aria” to the accompaniment of amplified natural sounds—birds, insects, wind, and water. Against immense images of (relatively) unspoiled wilderness, this descendant of wolves, now a designer dog, tries concertedly to communicate with his human companion, stimulating ideas about the evolution of music, art, and language across the nature-culture divide.
Barkhouse’s mixed-media installation, Red Rover, poses wooden pull toys of black wolves and pink poodles in a standoff, set on a large map of British Columbia made out of foam play mats. The allusions to children’s games mask an extremely serious subject: the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and its potential to destroy habitat and ruin the fishery. The poodles are the bad guys here. They’re also reminiscent of General Idea’s camp use of the poodle as a branding device. The wolves evoke sculptor John McEwen’s silhouetted dogs, wolves, and coyotes, again symbolizing the place where nature and culture collide.
Dogs, Boats and Airplanes by Burns is a multiyear project that includes photographs, drawings, a book, a vinyl record of choral works, and a collection of salt and pepper shakers. On view at the Or are 18 framed photos, a shelf display of kitsch shakers, and a tongue-in-cheek letter attesting to the artist’s “fragile” mental state. As the title suggests, Burns has captured a number of shots of dogs, boats, and airplanes on his travels through Europe, Latin America, and Asia. These are not heroic images but function within what the artist describes as a strategy of “radical banality”. Scruffy street dogs in Cuba, pampered purebred dogs in a window in South Korea, a mutt chained to a doghouse in a yard in Argentina, all speak to the different ways dogs are socialized in different parts of the world, Burns says. They also represent the Trickster’s way of fragmenting and reassembling everyday experience. Bravo.