Though we may not always consciously remember it, humans belong to the animal kingdom. We alternately fear, exploit and revere other animals, and though we may try to separate ourselves from the "animal world," we know deep down we are part of it. We look to animals to help orient ourselves in our environments and rely on them as cultural and personal messengers and guides, all while doing massive damage to countless species. Our relationships with our fellow animals -- from the beloved pet who's a member of the family to the fish captured, slaughtered and eaten to the myriad of often-unnoticed creatures going about their business all around us -- are complex.
The Palo Alto Art Center's current exhibition, "Encounters: Honoring the Animal in Ourselves," explores these human/nonhuman animal interactions and relationships -- positive, negative and ambivalent -- through a great variety of media, styles and tones from more than a dozen artists.
Photographer Corey Arnold, who also works for months at a time as a commercial fisherman, said at a recent "Art, Ecology and Animals" talk at the Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition that his relationship with the animal world is always lurking "deep in his psyche" and almost constantly present in his art. He recounted a childhood spent fishing and admiring wildlife with his father, as well as their many cherished family pets. The seeming incongruity between his love and respect for animals and his role "responsible for millions of fish deaths" is something, he said, he is continuing to reckon with. This uneasy reckoning is reflected in his photography, some of which depicts fishermen with their catches in gruesome detail. His work, he said, attempts to capture "a dialogue of where animals stand in their environment," showing both the "cruelty and love" involved in many encounters between humans and nonhuman creatures. He said he hopes to serve as an educational liaison between the commercial fishing world and the environmental movement, seeking a more sustainable co-existence.
Kara Maria's bold and colorful animal paintings are inspired by comic books and Japanese woodblock prints. Her monoprint in the exhibition, "The Animal That Lives in Your Heart," from Palo Alto's Smith Anderson Editions, depicts a human arm overlapped by images of the animals in the Chinese zodiac, believed to influence human personalities and life paths. Samuelle Richardson's Ghost Dog sculptures, made of discarded materials (old sweaters and tree branches), are a poignant tribute to the scrappy, resourceful stray dogs she's encountered in her travels. Roberto Benavidez' mixed-media project Illuminated Piñata No. 12: Crocodile & Hydrus plays with the traditional idea of a piñata: the classic birthday-party staple, an animal form filled with seeds, candies or other goodies and then broken open. Benavidez, whose artist statement describes him as a "half-breed, South Texan, queer, figurative sculptor," specializes in these unusual piñatas representing themes of sexuality, race, sin and beauty, all with a sense of humor.
It's impossible not to notice the large mixed-media sculptures of Elisabeth Higgins O'Connor, monumental beasts created from old knit blankets, rope and other household textiles. Her looming, half-monstrous, half-endearing creations, with their larger-than-life heads and humanoid bodies, seem ready to spring into action. Patricia Piccinini's sculptures, including The Bond, in which a long-haired woman cradles an odd, fetal pig-like baby, challenge the human notions of the beautiful and grotesque.
In El Gato Chimney's paintings, animals appear in dreamlike, surreal and folklore-inspired ways. And in the side gallery, Shiva Ahmadi's hypnotic animated short film "Ascend" uses the ancient Indian epic poem "The Ramayana" to reflect upon the 2015 tragic drowning death of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi (whose name, in Arabic, means "ascend"). In the film, a band of watercolor warrior monkeys play with bubbles and among leaves, set to a mesmerizing, droning soundtrack.
In addition to the main exhibition, visitors can draw animals and recall animal encounters of their own, then pin them on a wall organized by taxonomy. They can also view former Art Center intern Victoria Yao's appealing drawings of adoptable animals, available from Pets in Need. On Oct. 27, the Art Center will host a "Zoo Family Day," involving hands-on activities, performances and appearances by animals from the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo.
Back in the large gallery, North Bay artist Christopher Reiger's ink-and-watercolor "Familiar" series plays upon both the notion of animal "familiars" in witchcraft and the idea of becoming familiar with the wild animals living around us. At the Sept. 21 art talk, Reiger explained that fostering a sense of place, a connection to the environment and landscape, has always been essential to his sense of well being and of "home" (as, indeed, it is to most of us). Moving from the East Coast to California, he found himself needing to learn more about and encounter some of the wildlife in his new homeland in order to feel settled.
"Animals are a way into place," he said. "I really need to know my animal neighbors." His paintings in the exhibition include "wraithlike" representations of a bobcat, a coyote and a great horned owl, all represented with thick black lines and bright golden eyes staring straight at the viewer, their expressions intense and ambiguous. Alluding to the sometimes tense connection between humans and the wider, wilder world, he said of his work, "I want people to be drawn to it but then made slightly uncomfortable."
What: "Encounters: Honoring the Animal in Ourselves."
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.
When: Through Dec. 29. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays) and Sunday 1-5 p.m. "Zoo Family Day" will be held Sunday, Oct. 27, 2-4:30 p.m.
Info: Palo Alto Art Center.