Going Ape: Confronting Animals in Contemporary Art

DeCordova Exhibits
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On View 2006 - 2007

Going Ape is not the only, first, largest, or last exhibition on the theme of animals in contemporary art. Such shows have appeared throughout the country with increasing frequency over the last several years. This trend reflects two complementary phenomena: a growing set of artists who address animal themes in their work, and an avid audience for animal imagery. Everyone seems to be “going ape” for animal art.

This should come as no surprise. The history of art teems with animals, and may indeed have begun with images of beasts painted on the walls and ceilings of caves. Since that time, animals have appeared in the visual arts in everything ranging from decoration to symbols and allegories. The current interest in animal imagery, as expressed by both artists and viewers, seems intensified by our increasingly uneasy relationships with the natural world and its denizens. Our positions vis-à-vis animals are marked by confrontation and confusion. We gaze with wonder at them in the zoo, yet try to avoid them on the street. Meanwhile, our pets are practically people, since we ask them to be life-long companions and child surrogates. People don’t seem to know animals well anymore, or understand what our interactions should or could mean. This anxiety informs most of the artwork in Going Ape as artists try to find ways to figure out what it means to be animal, human, and both simultaneously.

Among the several themes that run throughout this exhibition are a questioning of the age-old wild/tame dichotomy and a confused duality between human/animal. Artists also use animal imagery to express anxiety and guilt about the wide variety of crimes perpetrated against animals and nature by our own species in the name of Science. But not everything is doom and gloom. Many of today’s artists, like artists throughout history, create images of animals to celebrate their sheer beauty of form, shape, surface, and variety, as well as their animating spirits.

So, even though the art in this exhibition is ostensibly about animals, it’s really all about us: what we think and how we feel. We ultimately confront animals to see ourselves.

Going Ape also heralds the planning, fundraising, and implementation of the Sculpture Zoo, the third phase of DeCordova Museum’s master plan. The Sculpture Zoo will be an area within the Sculpture Park permanently dedicated to the display of contemporary animal sculpture—a new opportunity for children and families to learn about the art of our time.

Going Ape includes work by the following artists:

  • Deborah Brown
  • Catherine Chalmers
  • Walton Ford
  • James Grashow
  • Catherine Hamilton
  • John Harden
  • Henry Horenstein
  • Mary Kenny
  • Vitaly Komar & Alex Melamid
  • Neeta Madahar
  • Barbara Moody
  • Josie Morway
  • Gwynn Murrill
  • Frank Noelker
  • Barbara Norfleet
  • Shelley Reed
  • Amy Ross
  • Peter Smuts
  • Brad Story
  • Kitty Wales

Going Ape has been funded by the Lois and Richard England Family Foundation.

Special thanks to Curatorial Interns Elizabeth Geissler, Abigail Satinsky, and Katherine Carroll, and Curatorial Fellow Lisa Sutcliffe for their assistance with this exhibition.