“The Animals Look Back at Us” opens in Woodstock

Jan Harrison, Big Cat Mountain Lion with Foliage Fur, 2011.

Animals have been central to human life since the beginning of civilization. They were the first subjects painted on cave walls (in animal blood), populated mythologies and became the first symbols. As John Berger writes in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” the treatment of animals by humans was “the first existential dualism. [Animals] were subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed.” What differentiated humans from animals was man’s capability for symbolic thought, but that difference was born of man’s relationship with animals.

Today, animals have all but disappeared (except for pets, of course; but they are a different category of creature, being extensions of our own lives). The marginalization of animals has extinguished “that look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago.” We still observe animals – in books of nature photography, documentary films, preserves and zoos and spectacles of entertainment – but they no longer look back at us.

But what if they could look back at us? Would some faint resonance of recognition stir within us, or would the experience leave us feeling empty, estranged? Many of the 13 artists participating in “The Animals Look Back at Us,” an exhibition of paintings, prints and sculptures opening Saturday, February 23 at the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, seeks to answer that question. Much of the work consists of images of animal heads that confront the viewer. “They’re engaging us directly, like Manet’s Olympia,” said curator Sara Lynn Henry, referring to the 19th-century painting of a reclining, nonchalant prostitute that shocked Parisian society. While that direct stance puts the animals “in a very powerful position,” it also reveals a vulnerability, she added.

There’s nothing bovine about Gillian Jagger’s pastel drawing of the face of a cow: Cropped tight within the picture frame, it is strikingly intimate and animated, yet, despite its specificity, has a spectral quality, as if it were a cow visitation. Sue Coe’s loosely executed lithograph of a primate face, called Upper and Lower Primates, also tightly cropped, has a mismatched eye that looks constructed out of pixels, giving the face a semi-human – one is tempted to say “monstrous” – aspect.

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