The Wassaic Project is pleased to announce Bestiary, an exhibition in various media, curated by Sally Morgan Lehman, Liz Parks and Sally Zunino.
Animals, as the subject of numerous works of art, literature and music, have often acted as allegorical stand-ins to their human counterparts - especially to parlay a moral or political message that might prove otherwise incendiary, or, perhaps conversely, obvious. The Middle Ages’ literary manifestation of this transference was the Bestiary, a collection of moralized fables about both real and fictional animals. In such treatises, the physical or imagined mental characteristics of beasts were ascribed certain human traits or values. For example, Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ 13th century Bestiary De proprietatibus rerum, describes an aging donkey: “For the elder the ass is, the fouler he waxeth from day to day, and hairy and rough, and is a melancholy beast, that is cold and dry, and is therefore kindly heavy and slow, and unlusty, dull and witless and forgetful.”
This exhibition offers a modern take on the medieval Bestiary, with works by 20 contemporary artists in whose work animals play a salient role. The animals are ascribed certain characteristics specific to contemporary times. As an example, the owl, a bird historically linked to Christ, figures prominently into the work of John Rappleye. In Rappleye’s work, stars have replaced the eyes of the owl. Could this be a symbol of omniscience, or perhaps the religious rapture sought by so many in today’s world? Likewise, Michael Waugh’s drawings utilize an ancient form of Hebrew calligraphy called micrography, wherein the lines creating the subject matter are actually small written words; here, Waugh has transcribed Part I of Ronald Reagan’s HIV Commission - a report documenting the HIV epidemic after Reagan had largely ignored its presence and vilified those who suffered from it - into the forms of three dogs. Perhaps the notion of the dog being always faithful (semper fidelis) to its master is being tested, as the recommendations made in the report were quite progressive, and went against most of Reagan’s beliefs. The visual menagerie created by these works, as well as the others included in the exhibition, acts as a mirror to the society in which we currently live.