or most people, the distinction is clear: You either are or are not an animal person. But whether you’re drawn to furry, feathered and scaly creatures or prefer to avoid them altogether, you’ll find plenty to be intrigued by in one must know the animals.
The latest exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, on display through August 19, features more than a hundred works featuring animals by contemporary artists. The paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures not only reveal the myriad ways artists employ the animal form; they also raise questions about animals’ roles in society and humans’ complex relationship with them.
I recently had the chance to walk through the show with curator Richard Axsom and , a renowned animal expert who’s a certified applied animal behaviorist and adjunct associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to discuss the works from both art historical and scientific perspectives.
When Axsom and co-curator Leah Kolb became interested in putting together a show about animals, they perused the museum’s collection of roughly six thousand works to see if they’d have enough to make an exhibition. Little did they know they’d end up with the largest permanent-collection show to date.
The exhibition is organized loosely by theme: satire and comedy, imagery drawn from literature, death and dying, magic realism and surrealism, sacred and primal imagery, the farm, companionship, rodeos and circuses, and hunting and fishing.
Axsom was surprised by the many ways animals proved to be a vehicle—”not only for understanding relationships but also ourselves,” he says.
For instance, Sergio Gonzalez-Tonero’s Wolf of 1973 features a black wolf with a long snout and rows of sharp white teeth. Axsom points out that the artist is a leading printmaker in Chile and this work is from a portfolio in which he depicts in new ways animals that typically scare people.
“What’s supposed to be hateful becomes endearing or even vulnerable,” he says.
“It’s both scary and funny,” McConnell agrees, adding that humans can’t help but apply their own interpretations to animals. “Dogs to me are inkblot tests, Rorschach tests. We’ve created them for our own needs and we project on to them what we want.”
While a life-size horse sculpture by Deborah Butterfield stands in the museum’s lobby, a smaller wire and steel horse is included in the exhibition. Dapple Gray of 1980 is the artist’s reaction to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. As she saw the clouds and ash arrive at her Montana ranch, she thought they looked dappled like an Appaloosa, says Axsom. Her horse, made of wire and covered with ash, holds its head down.
“The head is in a position of being weighted down, McConnell says. “That’s not a natural position. This says so much.”
Just as Butterfield is renowned for her ability to capture the essence of horses, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen has a gift for depicting cats. “Cats are extremely difficult to capture,” says Axsom, and points to the artist’s Deux Chats sur un Soussin beautifully warm and realistic etching of two cats nestled into one another.
Nearby, Michael Mazur’s Dog IV monoprint picks up on the conversation started by Gonzalez-Tonero’s Wolf. A black dog stands looking at the viewer, but it’s impossible to tell whether he’s calm or about to attack. The artist has left out all details in the animal’s face and body language; even McConnell can’t find the usual visual cues. Axsom says this work has raised a lot of questions with visitors—everyone wants to know whether this dog is friendly or fierce.
It’s left up to the viewer to decide the dog’s temperament, just as each viewer will likely bring his or her own opinions of and experiences with animals to each work on display in the show and interpret the art accordingly. This seems to be a trait we humans can’t avoid.
one must know the animals runs through August 19 at MMoCA. On June 21, 12:30–1:15 p.m., join Axsom and McConnell for Animals, People and Art, a talk in which they’ll discuss the “complicated and often contradictory relationship between people and animals.” For more information, visit mmoca.org.
Photo of Sergio Gonzalez-Tonero’s Wolf courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo of Axsom and McConnell by Maurice Thaler.