The nature show is, by now, a well-established genre and one I have great affinity for. Its aim is to capture nature in its beauty, horror, desperation and glory, with the hope that in doing so, people will see it for the wonder it is, and then honor and cherish it. As I walked through Catherine Chalmers' show, "American Cockroach," I couldn't help but feel like the plea of a nature show had been lost somewhere inside its weak simulation of post-modern thought.
In the post-modernist project, everything we thought we could see, know or feel was scheduled for re-evaluation. Thinking about something became thinking about all the ways thought is a distortion. There are only mis-readings, mis-seeings and mis-imaginings. We compulsively sentimentalize, pervert, repress and stage reality. For contemporary artists, the combination of rigorous, playful and clinical methods used by its practitioners has the appeal of an unofficial kind of legitimacy, and using these methods seems to have become almost a rite of passage in MFA programs, especially in what I'll call, Public Awareness Art, or art that aims more toward making people aware of issues than realizing some artistic vision. In Public Awareness Art, an issue is "explored" using post-modern forms of questioning as a way of clearing some space in which to suggest a new way of thinking about them. But usually there are some fairly firmly held beliefs about how the issue might begin to be rethought underlying all that post-modern posturing. It's post-modernism clearing the road for good old-fashioned belief. In "American Cockroach," Chalmers clears some space to make an ecological plea.
The problem with Public Awareness Art is that the artists don't have to be really inspired by their methods, they just use them to keep a topic alive. Chalmers' photos are interesting but they aren't enthralling, haunting, charged, mysterious, delightful or any of the other sensations you get from art that is the realization of some kind of artistic vision or an answer to some creative need. Work like that has presence. But Public Awareness Art just has to be interesting enough to get your attention. You can dabble in all kinds of mediums with minimal skill because you aren't trying to realize a vision; you're just exploring an issue. Ask yourself if the drawings and sculpture in this show could stand on their own.
Chalmers' message, written on a dark wall near the gallery's south exit, is this: "We are at a time in history when we are becoming aware of the larger impact we have on other species. The roach, strangely enough, is emblematic of the questions we face as we struggle to decipher our relationship to the animal world in general. What do we love, what do we save, and what becomes extinct? We have been drawing lines in the sand forever, but maybe now is a good time to re-imagine what's on the other side."
Commenting on her experiences living with her subjects she had this to say, "I found that once I got past the dark, twitchy exterior, the roach is remarkably subtle and beautiful. Its wings are glowing, translucent amber, its lithe legs are accented with randomly drawn spikes, and its antennae explore the world with the grace of a ballerina's arms."
Where are those photographs? This could have been a nature show after all, instead of the lite-post-modern interrogation it is. (Her video work does read like a nature show and is by far the best portion of the exhibit.)
The show reads like a simulation of thought, but there just isn't much to read.
The first part of the show, "Impostors," features large-scale macro-focus photographs of cockroaches posturing as less offensive more glamorous insects. The photographs are bright and the cockroach disguises are clever, but what are we supposed to be exploring? How should we read "Impostors?" Are we looking at the distorting effects of the projection of a Western grand narrative of imperialism upon the perceived Asiatic aesthetics of the cockroach? No, we're being asked to consider how we might feel about cockroaches if they looked more like they came from nail salons. It's not really what I would consider an intellectual exploration. And the suggestion that I need to be freed from a complex psychological framework of baseless presuppositions and hidden prejudices against the natural world because I think bunnies are more adorable than bugs is a bit of a stretch.
The second section of the show, "Residents," features cockroaches, not just dwelling with us but like us. The photos are staged in small sets that resemble human habitats on a roach scale. What if the cockroaches living in my home were really "living" in my home? The tiny champagne bottle on the rug next to the bed in which two roaches are intimately engaged made me smile, but once again, what am I supposed to be exploring?
The third venue, the one referred to in the viewer guide as the most provocative and visceral series is titled "Executions." A 6-foot plastic cockroach hangs from a noose. On the walls are black and white photographs of cockroaches being executed including one in a miniature electric chair, one being burned at the stake and a whole mess of roaches being gassed. The reference to what the Nazis did to the Jews is particularly appalling. Maybe blurring the line between cockroaches and humans makes a point about the thoughtless nature of current roach control. Maybe that's worse than ridiculous.
Before seeing this show, I had never considered cockroaches in a cultural context. My whole relationship to roaches up to this point has been based on a flimsy set of practical notions, such as I don't think I would like a cockroach to urinate in my butter dish.
Now, I'm being forced to ask how much of my being is inculcated in the seemingly innocuous sensation that there is something unpleasant about the idea of a cockroach even just, let's say, tromping around on my butter? Then again, is it really "my" butter? Would I feel better about it if cockroaches had big brown eyes and fluffy tails? Or is the real problem just that they don't pay their share of the grocery bill? And how does this psychological perversion of reality, this mental construct, this sense of "ickiness," bleed into my feelings about the rest of nature?
Chalmers seems to be suggesting that the feeling we have when we see cockroach droppings in our Brie is a feeling we can "explore," that this feeling is actually a rich conduit into the psychologically complex relationship we have with the natural world. Unfortunately, by choosing an arena as banal as "our feelings toward cockroaches" within which to unfold a post-modern exploration of the complex psychological relationship we have to all of nature, Chalmers has made a show that for me was so uneven, intellectually quirky and ultimately ridiculous that I left feeling like I'd seen it and missed it at the same time.
Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330, boiseartmuseum.org.