In the fifteen years since Colette Hosmer began making art with animals, scientists have decoded the human genome, the set of chromosomes that make us homo sapiens. Among the things scientists discovered along the way is that we are not so different from our fellow animals. Relatively few genes distinquish us from other primates, and we share some genes with even the lowliest of creatures. We are not so unique after all.
Colette Hosmer has been laboring to make the same point for years. An artist with a passion for the natural world, she began in the mid-1980s looking inside animals, from a purely appreciative viewpoint; her first organic media were skeletons she harvested from dead snakes. Hosmer arranged and mounted them to reveal the beauty in the usually invisible feats of Nature’s engineering. Later she explored rats, birds, fish and small mammals as media. She articulated quadrupeds as bipeds, so that the skeleton of a raccoon, posed upright and hung like a marionette, looked amazingly human. She became fascinated with minnows, ordering the tiny dried silvery fish by the gross, joining them in “schools” that shape-shifted into water, pouring from a spout and pooling on a floor. She bought quail eggs from unsuspecting Chinese grocers, and lined them up in grids she placed beneath glass to serve as the seat of a chair. She cast a dead goose in plaster in a revisitation of the 17th-century Dutch still-life; baked a minnow “pie,” created dinners with whole turtles in soup bowls instead of the usual unidentifiable (and therefore deniable) chunks of flesh.
Hosmer’s sculpture always connects animals and humans; hers is not “wildlife art:" by any stretch of the imagination. Yet neither is it art that exploits animals purely as media. Though the materials she uses are harvested from already-deceased animals, her imagery is not violent or grotesque, as are the bisected cows and pigs in British artist Damien Hirst’s tableaux. Nor are Hosmer’s works mementi mori, reminders of mortality; they have little if anything to do with death. And they are not partisan: Hosmer is a meat-eater who grew up hunting with her father in rural North Dakota, rooted in the reality of our relationship with animals.
In the current exhibit, Hosmer takes another step out onto the bridge between people and animals, examining how we separate ourselves from Nature. Since the Industrial Revolution, we Westerners have moved ever more distant from daily contact with the real world. While our grandparents or great-grandparents hunted, raised and butchered their own meat, grew their own vegetables, chopped wood for fires, and hand-dug wells for water, most of us don’t need to do any of those things to survive. We surf the Net or sit passively in front of TV, whiling away hours during which grandmother would have tended the garden, gathered eggs and watched a hawk circle while clouds grew into storm columns on the horizon. Many people have become so far removed from the natural world that their relationship to it is like that of tourists to their vacation destinations. Nature is “out there” somewhere, a place we visit but do not inhabit, and animals are removed from us in every respect. That dissociation is folly, Hosmer says: “The illusion of separateness is exaggerated and dangerous.” As a reminder that we are indeed connected, Hosmer offers us Souvenirs.
The majority of works in this exhibit are animals preserved in snow globes, reminiscent of the sparkling, self-contained worlds most everyone has purchased as souvenirs at one time or another. Hosmer positioned the animals and built tiny armatures of silver and copper to hold them in place. A frog swims toward the glass; a chameleon climbs a “twig;” a snake wraps itself around its metal brace as it might the branch of some tropical tree. The globes are complete with the familiar iridescent and colored crystals, suspended in Carosafe, a nontoxic preservative. When the globes are shaken the crystals swirl, coming to rest on a turtle’s back, a bird’s beak.
Magic: Hosmer casts a spell with these works. The snow globes slightly distort and magnify the animals within. They float silently and safely in their bubbles, stripped of their threats (real or perceived) to humans. They are friendly and whimsical, reminiscent of the scorpions and tarantulas captured in resin paperweights in every souvenir shop along America’s interstates; they conjure the caterpillars and ladybugs nearly every child catches and keeps in a jar. Hosmer makes us love her souvenirs, to feel the wonder and awe of a child’s first close look at a small furry being, the antithesis of the fear and suspicion (Put that down! It has germs!) That may later set in. Still, the animals are relics of nature, resurrected from death. They quietly confront us: Yes, they are trapped inside the glass, but so are we trapped. It is only in this time, in this moment of reality, that we happen to be on the outside of the glass. Anyone who has driven through a wildlife park or taken a photo safari in Africa has felt the opposite, has looked out from the inside of the glass, has been the one contained. Stare at the white rat in the snow globe long enough, and he begins to stare back – or so it seems. Come on in, the water’s fine.
Hosmer has taken the snow globes to a further remove, fitting glass globes lighted with colored neon into the tops of steel columns made from raw industrial pipe. Inside each is a rarefied being: A huge bullfrog, feet splayed against the glass, his fat body a placid pillow in the bottom of the globe; a Rhesus monkey skull, its teeth so symmetrical and perfect as to be enviable by many humans. The globes glow green, cobalt, yellow, fuchsia, aqua. The juxtaposition of the architectural columns and their very organic contents reminds us exactly how we have come to be so detached from the natural world.
What kind of artist is Hosmer? Where does her work fit in? Critics have always responded positively to her work, but sometimes have difficulty with her process, just as many high school biology students have difficulty dissecting a fetal pig. Yes, they concede to their teacher, it’s interesting, but – yuck. Hosmer’s process – collecting dead animals, dissecting them, harvesting appropriate parts – is central to her work, and as fascinating to her as similar processes are to a wildlife biologist or a human pathologist. Like many sculptors, her art derives from what she thinks about and concludes while preparing her materials. Still, some critics have warned readers away from thinking too hard about it, fueling a ghoulish viewpoint rather than the aesthetic and intellectual absorption the artist experiences. Perhaps our squeamishness about animal guts mirrors our puritanically influenced inability to talk about our own guts; after all, their insides look an awful lot like ours.
As viewers we need not think about how Hosmer got that animal skull or skeleton in order to understand what she’s saying or to appreciate the work. For some of us, the intellectual avenue of understanding is a clearer one than the “gut” route. Hosmer can be described as a contemporary naturalist, but her work has always displayed elements of surrealism and minimalism. Her dogged use of repetition and explorations of symmetry (she cannot stop herself from assembling minnows in yet another way) resonate with Agnes Martin’s obsession with grids. The narrative evident in her work shares, with the river photographs of Thomas Joshua cooper and the outdoor installations of organic materials by Andy Goldsworthy, an aspect that celebrates nature and demands that we renew our attention to it. Look at me a different way, her animals seem to say. But Hosmer’s work may have even more in common with that of John James Audubon. In its singularness of purpose and refection of sentimentality, Hosmer’s depiction of animals, coupled with her arrangement of them to shape specific ideas, echo Audubon’s illustrations of birds: unrelentingly raw, sometimes beautiful, always revealing. And like Audubon, she deals directly with the real thing, not a romanticized ideal viewed from a distance. Her work skirts the tiring political rhetoric of environmental issues and takes us to the core instead. So, do you think I’m cute now? Asks the bat’s head in the snow globe, its tiny fangs bared.
In the film version of Dr. Doolittle, the physician who can talk to animals successfully operates on a sick tiger. The doctor’s scruffy mutt later asks him how such a miracle was possible. “It’s no big deal,” Dr. Doolittle explains modestly. “We’re all basically the same.” Officially, scientists now agree: We are all made of the same stuff. Doesn’t it also make sense that we share more than genes? According to the popular but controversial Gaia Hypothesis, the world is a living, self-regulating, symbiotic whole, a super-organism, every part of which – from rock to river to rhinoceros – is connected to every other. That notion runs counter to the typical Western belief in the supremacy of humankind. But most of us intuitively grasp the fundamental logic of what naturalist writer Chet Raymo calls “this web of interdependence.” In Natural Prayers, Raymo writes, “No species is expendable; we are bound together by our mutual need. But sometimes it takes a kick in the head to make the depth of the interdependence sink in.” With Souvenirs, Colette Hosmer gives us just such a kick.
Hollis Walker - Santa Fe, New Mexico