If you go down to ‘Zoo’ today…

Ever since Aesop wrote his famous fables, and indeed since the dawn of time, human beings have thought of animals in terms of mythical and symbolic associations. But in a world where the ability to reason is held in the highest esteem, animals have been relegated to the minor realm of instincts and as such have never become a respectable subject for serious art, at least not so as to produce a genre of painting such as still lifes are. There are, of course, famous exceptions such as the 18th-century George Stubbs, who became known for his beautiful equestrian portraits and was praised for his scientific study of animals in his famous book Anatomy of the Horse. But in general, it is popular culture that has exhibited the greatest and steadiest attachment to animals. And it is mostly through children’s stories and animation films that animals are turned into art. During recent years, however, animals have entered the world of art through a different source, that of science. Just as environmental issues and advances in technology preoccupy the contemporary world, images of animals have been ushered into the world of art in the most unprecedented ways, raising both aesthetic and moral concerns by actually negotiating the terrain of science and art. But there is also another, more innocent and romanticized side to the animal world. This is addressed in Zoo, an exhibit at the Zoumboulakis Gallery which puts on view the works that a group of Greek contemporary artists (Yiannis Adamakis, Diamantis Aidinis, Andriana Verveti, Christina Dara, Yiannis Kottis, Sophia Kalogeropoulou and Christos Kehagioglou) have created on the theme on animals. Depending on the angle one wishes to view the exhibit, Zoo could be seen as visual escapism into fantasy land but can also be used as an occasion to ponder on the recent use of animals in art, albeit an indirect one, since the mood of the exhibit is far removed from more experimental, contemporary works. Contrary to the practice of incorporating live animals in art and of therefore opening up animal-rights issues, most of the artists here have reproduced childlike images of appealing creatures and pluck our emotional heart strings for a response. Realizing the drawing power of this exhibit for children, the Zoumboulakis has also organized a series of children’s educational programs for the younger crowd. What makes Zoo a contemporary exhibit is its casual, playful perspective on art, which actually reflects a broader informal mood found in much of artistic practice, especially as artists increasingly draw on popular and everyday culture for their inspiration. Diamantis Aidinis, for example, often uses visual elements taken out of popular culture, mostly comics. Another aspect of the exhibit is that the naif-like style of the works on view is not incidental but a visual mode consistently used by each of the participating artists. Sophia Kalogeropoulou, for example, is known for her colorful paintings and their imaginative illustrations of old tales and myths. As for Paris-based artist Yiannis Kottis, his work has become associated with depictions of animals in bright, sugary colors. Artist Christina Dara is another artist consistently engaged in such childlike imagery. Her stuffed dogs that hang from the gallery’s ceiling are only a small segment of a visual repertory of children’s images. Her signature dogs were the motif used on a scarf that designers Clements and Ribeiro launched for this season’s collection. Although not particularly drawn to fashion, Dara’s liking for the casualness of the currently trendy pick-and-mix style have gained her work access to the fashion world. Accessories designed by her are to be found in major venues around the world, including Barneys in New York. Seen all together, the works convey a joyous spirit and show that using animals in art can have a light, uncomplicated side to it. There is nothing here of the controversy with respect to animals that other contemporary works have given rise to, as for example, Marko Evaristti’s installation, which was displayed in Denmark last year and was finally removed by the police on the grounds of its cynical manipulation of animals. (In this installation, the viewers were free to switch on any of 10 ordinary kitchen blenders, each of which contained a swimming goldfish.) Accustomed as we have become to seeking some critical edge to works of art, we may find it hard to accept Zoo. There are no pretensions to intellectual urgency, and the use of childlike imagery is a far cry from the unconventional, artistic quests of mid-century Art Brut. Back then, artists reverted to children’s art to purify art itself of its conventions. In Zoo, spectators can perhaps detect another quest for purity, one that lifts them from the triteness of everyday life and reminds them of life’s brighter side. FRIDAY

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