The word “bestiary” in the show’s title refers to a literary form, which peaked in popularity during the Middle Ages. A collection of descriptions of real and imaginary animals, a bestiary was distinguished from a scientific work in that it provided moral interpretations of the animals’ habits and was meant to instruct readers in their own behavior. Similarly, the sculptures included in the exhibition provide much more than aesthetic pleasure. Many of the ceramic and mixed-media animals on view here bear the marks of our use and abuse, and our general disregard for their lives.
Among the works included in the show is Jeff Irwin’s trio of ceramic sculptures, Win, Place, Show (2015). As its title implies, this piece stands as stark commentary on hunting for sport (as opposed to hunting for sustenance). Arrayed in a row along one of the gallery’s walls, the heads and front legs of a deer, a wild boar, and a pig protrude like mounted hunting trophies. These animals are painted entirely white, and from all parts of their flesh and features, small tree branches emerge. They therefore read as both animal and tree, and suggest that hunting destroys not only the animals unlucky enough to be shot, but also the finely tuned balance of life in the forest itself.
This and the other pointed works in the show call to mind the words of the wise farmer, author, poet, and activist Wendell Berry, who has warned: “Whether we or our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”