When I first heard about “Animal House: Works of Art Made by Animals,” my first thought was: if the work itself is silly, can the theoretical context that frames it be enough to make for a compelling experience? While I am obsessed with animals, the very idea of animal creativity was thoroughly new to me, and indeed it is the curator Stefan St-Laurent’s insights into the animal-art phenomenon—and the $100-million-per-annum industry built around it—that made the show fascinating. “Animal House” provocatively throws into crisis the idea that real art represents the intentional effort of a self-identified artist.
The animal artists ranged from cat, dog and chicken musicians to Abstract Expressionist elephants and primates to the Brooklyn-based Jack Russell terrier Tillamook Cheddar, who specializes in “scratch” canvases of a more political bent (take, for example, her ferocious critique of nationalism, Betsy Ross’s Bitch, from 2008). The artworks were supplemented by archival material and other cultural detritus, and hung at a child- and dog-appropriate eye level. (It was interesting to note that some keepers name the animal artists’ work—e.g. Banana Flower, by a chimp named Washoe—while others take a more hands- off approach by numbering artworks sequentially.) Most of the paintings were lines and smears on a blank background; only Koopa the turtle favoured a more all-over approach, distinguishing himself from the mammals in the show.
Despite its modest size, the exhibition covered a wide range of themes, including examples of animal creativity in the wild such as termites’ and birds’ nests (paradoxically recreated by humans) as well as interspecies collaborations. The most potent piece on view was the video Aria, by Julie Andreyev and her dogs, Tom and Sugi, whom we see running through the wilderness. Its cosmically atmospheric soundtrack was composed entirely from Tom’s vocal warblings, live insect sounds and other sounds from nature; Andreyev infuses the natural landscape with the spirit of her pooches, gloriously capturing their intense attachment to the land they romp through.
The mischievous spirits governing the exhibition were Komar and Melamid, the Russian-American conceptual artists most famous for their People’s Choice series of paintings, whose creation involved polling the public about their preferences in art. The artists founded the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project to raise money to support elephants, training them to paint and selling their work for their benefit. (Long mainstays of the Thai manufacturing economy, carting fallen trees, the unemployed elephants were forced to become labourers in a cultural economy—a delicious irony in light of current downsizing here at home.) Taking the logic of the market at face value, Komar and Melamid contend there is no difference in status between a de Kooning and a Noppakhao if both sell as artworks; the metaphor of raw primitivity as applied to Abstract Expressionism provided a salient, enduring subtext to the debate.