Both 'The Human Zoo', a challenging, thought-provoking exhibition curated for the Hatton Gallery by Karen Chapman, and 'A painted menagerie: the animal in art, 1600–1930', curated by the Hatton's Deputy Curator, Andrew Heard, explore the use of animals as artists' subject matter. Their aim is to demonstrate how the contemporary artist's approach to animal themes is, in many respects, radically different to that adopted by the artists of the past.
Showing the two exhibitions side by side enables comparisons to be drawn, for example, between John Isaacs' disturbing 1995 sculpture, Untitled (Monkey) – a forlorn half-human/half primate 'experiment gone wrong', with Louis Joseph Watteau's (1731-1798) treatment of similar creatures in his Assemblage of monkeys in a park dressed as humans.
'The Human Zoo', says Karen Chapman, is intended to make us think about man's relationship with animals, by looking at the subject matter and technique contemporary artists have used to explore the role that animals play in modern society.
'In the past, animals were largely portrayed in art as existing to serve man, so for example, people commissioned images of their horses and dogs as a symbol of their status as owners.
'This exhibition re-examines our relationship with animals, how we co-exist with them – and they with us. Whereas, traditionally, art featuring domesticated animals often tended to serve purely as a sentimental record for their owners, contemporary art is focussed much more on the perspective of the animals themselves. Contemporary artists see animals more as equals, with their own values which exist outside of their relationship with man.'
In Untitled (Monkey), John Isaacs combines aspects of human and primate physicality to create his disturbing hybrid. The piece is purposefully imperfect, with human hands (cast from a five-year-old child) and patches of human hair which seem to have been clumsily grafted onto the monkey's body. In this 'failed experiment' Isaacs ensures that the viewer realises that it is the human aspect of the figure, wielding the syringe, that is in control; through the creature's expression of forlorn vulnerability he leaves us in no doubt that this pitiful beast has come to exist at the hands of man – a supposedly more 'advanced' species.
But by no means all of the artists in this carefully-thought out exhibition employ 'shock tactics' to convey their message.
Collaborative partners Olly and Suzi search specifically for wildlife which is under immediate threat from mankind. They see their work as providing permanent physical proof of the existence of endangered species; the animals leave their own mark on the work, and so their interaction with the artist becomes much more personal than mere photographic documentation.
Through their paintings and accompanying photographs of African wild dogs, made in Tanzania earlier this year, Olly and Suzi seek to draw attention to the creature's real plight: Lycaon pictus (or 'painted wolf') is now a critically endangered species.
Liz Arnold presents complex issues of global significance in a highly accessible way. Her cartoon-like characters – creatures in humanistic poses, wearing unlikely items of clothing – are quirky, even ludicrous, but at the same time, their setting against apocalyptic and industrial landscapes implies that the creatures are a product of conditions outside their control.
Britta Jaschinski's unromanticised depictions of animal life pose fundamental questions regarding our treatment of, and attitude towards, the study of wild animals, asking the viewer to consider whether humans have the right to cage wild animals, and what affect such incarceration has on them. Here, in her Zoo series, she provides mere glimpses of the creatures, reflecting the reality of a visit to the zoo, where animals often refuse to 'perform' on demand. In contrast, images from her Wild Things series – large scale prints of 'big game' with all background removed from the composition – also on display, considers the impact that context has on our understanding of the animal.
The Human Zoo also features works by Liz Arnold; Jordan Baseman; Marcus Coates; Marion Coutts; Nicky Coutts; John Drysdale; Mark Fairnington; Laura Ford; Dan Hays; Paula Rego; Carrie Reichardt; Kerry Stewart; William Wegman and Duncan Wright.
'A painted menagerie: the animal in art, 1600 – 1930' enables the changes in the way animals are portrayed in art to be placed into context, by reflecting the diverse ways in which a range of artists have depicted animals from 1600 to the mid-twentieth century.
The exhibition explores the different roles traditionally held by animals in the eyes of man: work, sport, entertainment, companionship – even food. Drawn from the Hatton Gallery's own collection, and incorporating loans from the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, and the Bowes Museum, County Durham, 'A painted menagerie' includes works by Louis Joseph Watteau, Thomas Gainsborough, Joseph Crawhall, Sir Alfred Munnings and Dame Laura Knight.
'The Human Zoo' and 'A painted menagerie' open in the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, on Saturday 28 June 2003. Opening hours are Monday to Friday 10.00 am to 5.30 pm; Saturday 10.00 am to 4.30 pm. Admission is free. For further details contact the Hatton Gallery on 0191 222 6059.
Notes for Editors:
1. Selected images from 'The Human Zoo' and 'A painted menagerie' are available in electronic format. Please contact the Press Office on 0191 222 5791/7850 for details.
2. The exhibition catalogue, featuring an introductory essay entitled 'Between the cages' by Dr Steve Baker, a Reader in Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of Historical and Critical Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, and author of The Postmodern Animal and Picturing the Beast.
3. Please refer to 'Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University' if reproducing this material.
For further information contact Melanie Reed in the University Press Office on +44 (0) 191 222 5791; e-mail email@example.com Karen Chapman, Hatton Gallery, on 0191 222 6057, or Andrew Heard, Hatton Gallery, on 0191 222 3493
published on: 24th June 2003