Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 25th, 2006
The Maine Sunday Telegram published an "Audience Section" critique of the new Bates exhibition. It follows:
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Artists hope viewers let imaginations run wild
By BOB KEYES, Portland Press Herald Writer
LEWISTON — The female rears back, teeth clenched, arms ready to attack. She’s frightening, fierce and ferocious. But there’s something anatomically wrong.
Instead of strong legs that would suggest her ability to spring, she sports fins and a tail.
She is, after all, a mermaid.
The creation of Minnesota artist Sarina Brewer, the "Feejee Mermaid" stands – or is it more appropriately, swims? – as one of the more memorable aspects of a witty new contemporary art show that opened last week at the Bates College Museum of Art.
The exhibition, "Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale" – comas omitted on purpose – examines the quest for unknown, rumored or hidden animals.
For years, cryptozoology has been considered a fringe science and a freak-show-like pursuit. But it is a serious topic of study for some people, including many contemporary artists who mine its limitless potential to exercise their creative fancy and dramatic flair.
Among the more famous creatures studied in the discipline are Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and the yeti, all of which are represented in the show.
There also are unknown and imagined critters, such as the "Feejee Mermaid" and a brilliantly scary three-headed turkey with the hind quarters of a small furry animal.
It if sounds strange, it is.
This show breaks all the rules of museums. It challenges our perception of representation and begs us to open our minds to a larger-than-life curio cabinet.
It’s also fun and playful, destined to appeal to people with unencumbered imaginations.
"A typical contemporary art show is not necessarily something kids would go see. But this one, they will," said co-curator and museum director Mark H.C. Bessire, noting that children tend to have the most far-flung fantasies.
The show, which will remain on display through early October in Lewiston, will travel this fall to the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute. Artspace gallery director Raechell Smith co-curated the show with Bessire.
The genesis of the exhibition is the long-seeded friendship between Bessire and Portland painter Sean Foley, whose fanciful, exotic paintings of imagined creatures have captivated audiences in Maine and across the country for several years.
At the time, both men were associated with Maine College of Art. They began talking about cryptozoology in a serious way when they discovered that a leading authority on cryptozoology in America, Loren Coleman, lives just around the block from Foley’s Portland home.
In the five years since, they have worked to assemble the show, shifting venues from Portland to Lewiston when Bessire left MECA for Bates.
The crux of the exhibition explores how artists respond to cryptozoology. There are paintings from Jamie Wyeth, a diorama from Foley and sculpture, photography and installations from a variety of artists who are known in America and internationally.
The most famous, perhaps, is Mark Dion of New York, who installed a central hallway through which people are urged to enter the exhibition.
Dion created a foyer with a series of doors marked with bureaucratic lettering, evoking government or academic offices. His idea is that we tend to treat information seriously if an institution sanctions it. His interactive art piece – the doors serve as portals to the truly bizarre that lurks behind the walls – serves to endorse the exhibition as a whole, providing a stamp of credibility.
The wittiest elements are a series of sculptures created by Brewer and her cohorts in the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. They create lifelike and plausible creatures from road kill, often combining the head of one animal with the back section of another.
The "Feejee Mermaid" is one example, and there are many more. A favorite is bound to be the three-headed turkey, with a backside that looks like it could be a raccoon or similar animal. The so-called carcass art isn’t widely endorsed by those who practice taxidermy as a profession.
In the catalog prepared for the exhibition, Bessire writes that Bill Haynes, director of the National Taxidermist Association, has condemned the rogue taxidermists. "The very fact that they’re using the word ‘taxidermists’ is offensive," he told The New York Times, adding that real taxidermists "reproduce nature to exact standards that represent the good lord’s work."
But the idea of "exact standards" is both tricky and evasive. Standards according to whom?
This exhibition focuses not on what we know as fact, but on myth, legend and quasi-science. This is Jurassic Park, with a twist.
This exhibition challenges the idea of authenticity. A central theme seems to be, just because we can’t document these animals doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Some are pure whimsy, such as Jamie Wyeth’s paintings of the aardvark-like "Anitbus," a creature Wyeth created with Stephen King for King’s TV adaptation of "Kingdom Hospital."
Others are open to debate.
We see the famous grainy photo of the Loch Ness monster, a life-size replica of Bigfoot. Several artists follow the trail of the thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger-like beast that once existed but now is considered extinct. The art here is the creation of images of the much-studied creature, a process that combines scientific knowledge with conjecture.
That dichotomy and the juxtaposition of the known and the what-might-be interested Bessire in the first place. The mingling of the known and the unknown is the grist of crypto, he said.
"For me, it’s the overlap of art, myth, science and environmentalism. If you take those four things and find in them a theme in which you can bring art into the equation, it’s a gold mine. And I think we’ve uncovered a gold mine with this show."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale"
WHEN: Open until Oct. 7.
WHERE: Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston.
INFORMATION: 786-6158 or www.bates.edu/museum.xml