On the 1988 Talking Heads album Naked, David Byrne tells of a technological society reclaimed by nature. The wreckage of human civilization is covered by a bright florescence of animals and plants. If “Nothing But Flowers” was prophecy, it hasn’t come true yet: around the globe, the green tide continues to recede as the man-made environment expands.
But there’s currently a place in Essex County where the fantasy is … well, not exactly real, but close enough to give a nature-boy the chills. The magician is the sculptor Federico Uribe, and the site of this epic conjuration is the Special Exhibition gallery of the Montclair Art Museum, where his show, “Animalia,” will be on view until June 21.
Uribe makes animals. Not real ones, of course, but the next best thing — sculptures that seem to twitch and throb with life. His work is so vibrant that it may take you a few seconds to realize that these magnificent beasts of his are made of junk. Charismatic megafauna, schools of little fish, bugs and birds and serpents: all of it is assembled from some of mankind’s most pernicious waste.
The wool of a life-sized sheep turns out, upon inspection, to be the handles of broken scissors. Artfully bent coat hangers morph into a flock of birds. Great cats are somehow pieced together, shell by shell, from the cylindrical casings of used bullets. Ocean-bound plastic is organized into a replica coral reef. Each fork, water bottle, twist-off cap and fan blade fits into Uribe’s ecosystem as neatly as it would if it had grown there.
All of this may seem pointed. I doubt Uribe would deny that his work carries a timely message. Habitat destruction is a consequence of the way we live, and the advance of civilization that threatens our animal neighbors will, sooner or later (but probably sooner), threaten its authors, too.
Uribe, who is Colombian by birth and upbringing, currently works in Miami, a city dogged by rising waters and environmental degradation. Yet because his powers of illusion are so potent, the first impression that “Animalia” makes won’t be a particularly argumentative one. Instead, you’ll feel like you’ve been plunged into the middle of a jungle.
Uribe’s sculptures prompt a kind of double recognition. First, you’ll see the animal and be amazed at the likeness. After that, you’ll see what the sculpture is made of, and you’ll be amazed at the artist’s ability to breathe life into ordinary cast-off objects. Only after the initial enchantment wears off — which may take a while — is it likely that you’ll engage with the implications of the art.
The result is the best kind of topical show: one that gently reminds us of our obligations to our non-human neighbors, while reusing materials that would otherwise pollute our air, our water and our collective psyche. Uribe expresses his love for animals by rendering his subjects in passionate detail. Not merely does he capture the ripple of muscles on the back of his jet-black jaguar and the tousled mane of his lion (he has a particular affinity for all things feline), but he’s also able to suggest the feral personalities of his creatures and their not-quite-human emotions.
No computer modeling was used to realize these works. That may be one of the reasons why there’s nothing digital or impersonal about the results. Instead, this show radiates respect, sympathy and understanding, and more than a little sadness, too.
Children don’t always respond well to art shows. “Animalia” is an exception. On our visit, we noticed a rare thing indeed: kids, many of them, rapt, fascinated by colors and textures of the animals in the menagerie. The show imparted some of the same surprise and joy associated with a visit to the monkey habitat.
We don’t want to spoil too much of that surprise, but we can promise you a great looming giraffe with a neck that stretches from the wall to the middle of the gallery, an ostrich with its head stuck obstinately in the “sand” of the floor, a pig made of measuring tape, a fox made of an amalgam of shaved colored pencils, and a cornfield sprouting with broken crutches. The show is immersive, but repays scrutiny anyway. There are hidden delights everywhere, and some of them are quite subtle. It took me 10 minutes to realize that the school of fish I was staring at on the gallery wall was simply the sawed-off handles of paintbrushes.
It takes an artist of real sensitivity to look at that handle and see the fish sleeping inside. It takes one of real skill to make that fish visible to viewers.
The “Animalia” show extends the notable winning streak of the Special Exhibition Gallery at the Montclair Art Museum. It comes on the heels of the mind-bending Larry Kagan shadow-art show, a group exhibition that demonstrated the versatility and imagination of Garden State fiber artists, and a provocative Kara Walker installation that suited the tenor of conflictual times. The curators deserve commendation for programming shows that avoid the usual names and confound the expectations of museumgoers.
MAM has supplemented Uribe’s sculptures with “Uncaged,” a complementary exhibition of animal-themed art drawn from their permanent collection; they’re all in, and their commitment to coherence and intertextuality adds another dimension to a museum-going experience that’s already exemplary. They know they’ve got a hot property on their hands — a smart, exciting, provocative exhibition from a mid-sized cultural institution that continues to punch well above its weight.
“Federico Uribe: Animalia” will be on display at the Montclair Art Museum through June 21, while “Uncaged: Animals in the Collection” will be on display through Aug. 8. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.
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