Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Elisabeth Frink, Chanticleer and Pertelote, 1970. Etching, 15 3/4 x 23 1/4 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Maurice Brooks.
Love Me, Love My Dog reads the title of a print in a new show on view through Aug. 19 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. I feel the same way. My best friend is geriatric, weighs 18 pounds and licks his own butt. Adopting him is, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Yet the new exhibition, one must know the animals -- its title comes from a Rilke quote -- isn't just a cuddly show. Over a hundred works from the last century examine animals and the human-animal bond from a range of angles: beloved pets, working animals, wild creatures, and metaphors for human behavior. The theme may be straightforward, but its permutations are limitless.
While there are some ho-hum works, there are also some stunners. I'm drawn to the strangeness and technical mastery of Erik Weisenburger's Ursa Memoriam, an oil painting from 1998. Appalled by the story of a northern Wisconsin man who baited a black bear and then shot it from his porch, the artist depicts a bear in the guise of the martyred St. Sebastian. In Weisenburger's dark, brooding scene, the nobility of the bear shines through, and small, golden birds bear witness to his suffering. Rather than depict the actual incident, the artist transports it to the realm of legend.
In a much different vein, Roy DeForest's untitled lithograph from the 1980s makes me smile; its frenzied, scribbled composition feels like a dog's representation of its own canine world. David Bigelow's etching The Spy also has a humorous element, as a hippo goes undercover among rhinos by attaching carrot "horns" to his nose.
Topnotch Wisconsin artists are well represented in this mix, drawn from the museum's permanent collection. Included are two works by the late, great surrealist John Wilde, plus paintings by Tom Uttech and Fred Stonehouse. You'll also find works by American Regionalist masters Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.
While the show is print-heavy, no one medium truly dominates. Arthur Tress' 1969 black-and-white photo Girl at Aquarium, S.F. gets brilliantly at that special affinity between kids and animals. A young girl stands in front of a huge aquarium tank, her head tipped back and eyes mostly closed. A seal passes behind her, and one can feel how much she wants to suffuse herself in this magical, mysterious realm.
From photorealistic painting to Haitian folk art to pop-inflected styles, one must know the animals delivers both variety and a subject with universal relevance.