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The intermingled destinies of animals


“The Elephant in the Room: Animal as Model” is the latest exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center.

Walton Ford (American, born 1960). Dying Words, 2005. Six-plate hardground etching, aquatint, spit-bite aquatint, and drypoint on paper. Sheet: 22 5/8 x 30 inches. Plate: 13 7/8 x 17 7/8 inches. Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; Gift of the Des Moines Art Center Print Club in memory of Richard Ward, 2007. Photo credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines

From Aesop to Brer Rabbit, from the bulls of Chauvet Cave to “The Lion King,” from Egyptian myth to “Animal Farm,” animals have been portraying humans as parables. For perhaps 40,000 years, humans and their progenitors have used animals as the subjects of the earliest art known in Australia, in Libya, in Europe and in pre-European America. It seems to be a universal fascination.

Of course, animals have provided humans with food, shelter, heat and cooking fuel. Why would early artists look anywhere else for inspiration? Such thoughts come to mind while viewing “The Elephant in the Room: Animal as Model.” This is the latest exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center through May 5.

This show concerns itself with animal art from the 17th century to contemporary time. In another story in this issue, I wrote about a man (Paul Willis) who has tried to rescue pigs from the utter horror of life in confined animal feeding operations. Pigs in Iowa outnumber humans yet are subjugated to the worst indignities in the history of the intermingled destinies of humans and animals. I often wonder why the modern scourge of producing cheaper protein by torturing animals does not interest artists. This show kept me wondering. Part of the answer is that the horror is less transparent than Auschwitz was to average Germans during the Third Reich. The other part is that people don’t want to think about animals being mistreated.

Animals in this show are treated with great respect and dignity. The closest things to a beast of burden are a police horse by Ken Heyman and circus elephants by John Stuart Curry. Even elephants, drawn with treaties of the British Colonial era, are shown without the burden of the howdah. Larassa Kabel’s “Sol” depicts a horse in free flight, probably after having been struck by a human-driven 18-wheeler. Probably the most serious intimation of potential for experiencing human-born horror is in Walton Ford’s “Dying Words” which shows Carolina parakeets posed, in brilliant colors, like a Civil War painting of a dying general on a battlefield, perhaps “Sedgwick at Spotsylvania Courthouse.” The Carolina parakeet has been extinct since the early 20th century. Ironically, it populated latitudes considerably north of Carolina, from upstate New York to Wisconsin.

Animals in the show are as intimidating as Eugene Delacroix’s “Lion Devouring a Horse” and as whimsical as Heyman’s “Dog in Sunglasses in Front of Beauty Supply Store.” Cats, horses and cows are the most popular subjects. Curator Laura Burkhalter says, however, that dogs seem most popular with viewers. At least the dog postcards given away to advertise the show were the first to need reordering.

Probably the most likely images to be recognized are four of a five-part series of Roy Lichtenstein lithographs showing bulls in various states of abstraction and reality. The most stunning photograph is a Hiroshi Sugimoto print of “White Rhinoceros.” The trompe l’oeil money shot is Dieter Roth’s screen print “Clever Hare,” which renders a colorful sonogram vision of a rabbit with a baby in its womb.


Des Moines’ painter Chris Vance is back with his annual show at Moberg Gallery. The most recognizable and popular painter in town brings a little more whimsy and a lot gayer colors to this year’s efforts. One new series of paintings are all done on skateboards. “Chris Vance: Not Quite an Architect” plays through April 20. Works by Conn Ryder, Tibi Chelcea, Jeffrey Thompson, Robert Schulte, Jr., and Andrew Clarridge are also being shown in conjunction with Vance. Olson-Larsen Galleries 40th Anniversary Show will commence on April 12. ♦

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