Last week in my Visual Culture class, I was asked to do a formal analysis of a work (from a select few exhibitions) at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS). Any excuse to visit the gallery is a good one! Plus, since I’m a student now I get free access which is aaaaawesome! Anyway, a friend and I spent an hour and a half going through the entire gallery and taking everything in, but I knew which piece I wanted to write about as soon as I walked in the door.
Janice Wright Cheney had two pieces at the SKIN exhibition at the AGNS, which is sadly not there anymore (closed October 1st). One of her works was a life-sized taxidermy-form of a bear, covered in roses, entitled The Widow.
It was hard to miss, posed at the entrance to the exhibition. For my formal analysis I was only allowed to talk about the physical aspects of the piece, which left much to be desired. Normally taxidermy has a cold and morbid vibe for me, but with this piece it felt completely opposite. It’s warm and doesn’t threaten me at all. I was fortunate to talk to a nearby docent about the piece and got some interesting insight to its history: Cheney saw the bear on the side of the road and was moved to create this piece, based upon her recent loss. She had wanted to do some kind of art piece to deal with it, but loss is such a personal and vulnerable thing to describe, so the bear allowed her to project without exposing her own very personal wounds. It’s important to note that this piece isn’t simply about loss; the roses are there to represent love & survival.
The roses are all painstakingly hand-dyed and individually attached to the form with pins. It creates an absolutely breath-taking form and I found it easy to study, hard to pry my eyes away from. The bear looks very naturally posed, almost docile. Could this be a commentary on how death is just another aspect of life, beautiful in its own way? The bear above isn’t angry or threatened, but relaxed. It’s rare for a work based on death to not bother me; normally I have a kind of visceral reaction to paintings or sculptures that incorporate the death theme. This work is beautiful and moving; to turn energy from such a terrible event in her life to something so gorgeous is a hugely successful thing to me.
The Widow is no longer showing at AGNS, but there is a sister bear to the one above that might be accessible somewhere in Fredericton, NB. I would start looking at NBCCD, since she currently teaches there and resides in Fredericton (which was a pleasant surprise since that’s where I’m from!).
At the other end of the exhibition I was drawn in by another one of her works, Coy Wolves. They are a commentary on the recent development regarding wolves mating with coyotes. I like these pieces because of the reaction I get from them. I’m drawn to their beauty even though there’s a sort of cannibalistic-type effect with them wearing wolf pelts. Something tells me that they’re not as pretty or glamorous as they look.
Again, these are taxidermy forms covered in lace and textiles. The forms are thin and graceful, taking on the stylings of fashion models. Is it wrong that I would love one of these in my living room? This work walks the line between art and deco. The docent I was talking to mentioned that the gallery had actually received death threats about these pieces from animal rights activists! This is a bit ironic, since (as far as I understand) Janice only uses taxidermy forms based on animals, and fur from animals that have died naturally or were found on the side of the road. She does her work as humanely as possible and doesn’t go out hunting for sport. I really wish these activist groups would do their research before bashing work like hers.
From the interview I found at Archive 7:
At center of these concerns is the idea of vermin — creatures that are not wanted. Bear, coyote, rat, insects, they are all intruders on human territory, and Cheney is fascinated by the casual violence we condone in the name of wildlife encroaching on human-claim ed territory.
These pieces are dogs masquerading as something they’re not. They’re very eye-catching but a more sinister idea is hidden beneath the lace and fur.
I couldn’t take any photos inside the gallery, but fortunately you can find photos of these pieces and others at the AGNS website (NSFW, some nudity in the exhibit). Furthermore, you can find a nice big photo of Coy Wolves right here on the AGNS flickr page!