[Fine Art ]

Animal instincts

Springs Preserve exhibit looks at man’s relationship with other species

Don Simon’s “Industrial Forest 2”

The Details

Unnatural History
Through September 12; daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; $5-$10 for park entry. Big Springs Gallery at Springs Preserve, 822-7700.
Four stars

In a scant nine months, the Big Springs Gallery at the Springs Preserve has carved for itself a definitive niche. Ever mindful of the mission of the Preserve, director Elizabeth Herridge and curator Mike Spiewak have managed to program the gallery with high-quality, refreshing and occasionally innovative exhibitions that never stray from core concerns: nature, landscape, regional ecology and conservation.

Unnatural History, a two-person exhibition featuring the work of Richard Barnes and Don Simon, retreats a bit from the Big Springs Gallery’s demonstrated concern for man’s relationship to the landscape, by embracing a seemingly benign twist: man’s relationship to animals. Or more precisely, the human relationship to animals within synthetic and man-made landscapes. The results are disturbing.

Barnes’ gorgeously ruthless photos of the in-process construction of natural-history exhibitions give an insider’s view into the creation of fabricated museum environments. Images of taxidermy animals prior to installation and murals in process trigger interesting questions about the privileged information we encounter in the museum setting, and how the compartmentalization of nature as an idea impacts our perception of the natural as a whole. “Giraffe,” “Smithsonian Monkey” and “Workers on Savannah” are beautiful and disquieting. Barnes and his sculpture “Musk Ox” are the stars of the show.

Concerned with a different kind of fabricated landscape, Simon’s skilled colored-pencil renderings spark a swift dialogue with Barnes’ highly theatrical museum “sets.” Simon’s animals are tautly confined by man-made environments and pictorial limits. The drawings are good, but “Industrial Forest” is exceptional. The triptych of a deer trapped in a dense grove of greenish vertical pipes manages to be both highly formal while simultaneously playing with narrative associations to nature.

Make no mistake: Unnatural History is dark. A cheetah lurches suspended in a wooden crate, frozen and trapped. Nearby, an anonymous group of creatures sit wrapped in plastic on an artificial savannah: bound, gagged, mute. Across from them, a herd of rhino frantically scours a parking lot: Are they seeking familiar territory or taking back what’s rightfully theirs?

Sadly, the timing of Unnatural History is perfect. Bombarded with Gulf Coast images of oil-soaked birds and stories of burning sea turtles, it is difficult to sidestep associations with our more selfish encounters with nature. One wonders if our mediated, controlled and artificial experience of nature has desensitized us to the fragility of the environment and the very real crisis of human impact. But this heartbreaking synchronicity also provides a golden opportunity for deeper reflection on the tangled web of coexistence, the immense responsibility of choice and learning how to live with the fallout.


Danielle Kelly

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