ART TAKES ON NATURE - Gallery Offers Fresh Look

The Capital Times (Madison, WI)
Published on August 9, 2000
© 2000- Madison Newspapers, Inc.
By Kevin Lynch

A summer art show titled "Flora and Fauna"? You envision a roomful of innocuous pseudo-impressionistic watercolors. Your eyes glaze over the visual salad bar. Eventually your brain grumbles, "I want meat." Buck up, partner, and bite into "Flora and Fauna," a new four-person art show at Wendy Cooper Gallery, 824 E. Johnson St., running through Aug. 26 (gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday). This show bites back, with experimental spices and mixtures: seriously goofball, benignly perverse, semi-scientific and ominously cute.

The exhibit runs roughshod over conventional artistic notions of nature art while unmasking humanity's troubled relationship to the environment.

Some of this is low-tech "grunge art," and some has the eccentric rigor of the professional specialist.

What's most anomalous -- and distinctive -- about the artists is that two have scientific backgrounds. The exhibit brochure includes a brief essay "Art and Science as Ways of Knowing" by Chris Nice, a research associate in the department of entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The show is curated by Scott Speh, a co-founder of the Madison art collective Slop Art and editor of the alternative art periodical artzine.

As a group curator, Speh is less interested in niceties of visual harmony than in ideas and images that bounce off each other, buzz and resonate.

Sadly for Madison, it's also Speh's last art project here before he moves to New York. He'll continue his artistic efforts (including artzine) while working as an East Coast high school recruiter for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Speh has been following the work of these four artists and saw their affinities. Gallery owner Wendy Cooper graciously allowed him to assemble this thematic show.

Most of Speh's post-modern projects snipe at conventional techniques, aesthetics and their socio-political assumptions. His edgy collective efforts are usually leavened with wit and subversive slyness.

Consider the prickly disjunction between the work of Katherine Shaughnessy and Joel Gaydos.

Chicagoan Shaughnessy's sculptural window installation, "Doegirl and Other Adventures in Bioengineering," resembles a fairy tale scene centered around a creature who is half woman, half doe. Cuddly little plastic rabbits and squirrels gather around this bambi-babe, but some of the critters have human baby arms growing from their furry torsos.

The gentle humor of this scene prompts a wry chuckle, but it may undercut the disturbing implications of biotechnology. By contrast, the most startling work -- two drawings by Baltimore resident Gaydos -- keep this from being a show for the whole family.

Gaydos is a tree-hugger with, um, fertilizing on his mind. Each charcoal, enamel and pencil drawing depicts a nude man, sexually engaged with plants, replete with tumescent genitalia.

Gaydos is a horticulturist and landscape designer, and the art "demonstrates his love for his work," Speh says. Some relationships with flora may reach intense levels of sensuality, or even spirituality. Certainly, sex with a plant is unencumbered, if sometimes cucumbered.

The most compelling -- and suspenseful -- work in the show may have been a performance by Colin Beatty last Saturday before the show's opening reception. All the materials of his performance-research project are on display. With degrees in zoology and art, the New York-based Beatty strives to question scientific methodology and arrogance. His area of specialty is limnology, the study of fresh water ecosystems.

Two huge photo blow-ups, titled ̉Dancing Around the Issues," show Beatty flailing around tall stacks of Nature magazine. It's a jab at scientists who deny their roles in ecosystem damage. Beatty's performance, "Watershed," is a far more involved critique.

On a gallery wall hang a number of hand-crafted, rubber-and-resin bird beaks (with head straps), based on scientific drawings of Galapagos finches -- water-diving hunters, which were studied famously by Charles Darwin.

In Darwinian fashion, Beatty inquires into a matter of survival. In performance, he dons one of the beaks and steps inside a zooplankton catcher, a device for straining tiny sea life from water. Resembling a shower stall, the head-level "catcher" portion fills with water, which submerges Beatty from the shoulders up.

Beatty tries to determine which beak on his face allows him to hold his breath the longest under water -- by marking hash marks at one-second intervals.

"But my perception of lapsed time, while submerged, is different from yours," he says. "I want to question the bias of biotechnology information, how applications are limited."

Beatty aims not to bash science, but to strive for more broad-minded rigor.

"I try to set up limited binary experiments destined for failure," he says.

As with the show's other work, Madisonian Paul Fuchs' art wears the scent of absurdity as comfortably as a pair of old shoes.

The most interesting of his three videos involves a man who visits Vilas Park Zoo, where he encounters a walking, talking, dancing carrot which, in the end, seems to profoundly change his life. Performance artist Colin Beatty adorns one of his many models of Galapagos finch beaks, and a wet suit, to prepare for his semi-scientific performance "Watershed."

Colin Beatty's head is submerged in a plankton catcher, and he tries to objectively determine how long he can remain under water.


Copyright Ⓒ 1998-2018 Katherine Shaughnessy