From the outside, The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill in the West Village looks like it has always been there, but it hasn’t. The “shop” is the shell holding the latest work by the British graffiti artist Banksy.
A sandwich board standing on the straw covered sidewalk out front reads, “Open for rare breeds, pet supplies, mechanically retrieved meat.” The last phrase most accurately describes the main theme of the controversial exhibition inside the pet shop: processed meat pets.
This isn’t the first time Banksy has created a politically charged piece of art, but, the execution of his art, which normally revolves around graffiti – spray paint, stencils and cut outs, is new. By having an actual show, with a press release, web site, and location, Banksy deviates from his classic presentations. Also, by displaying his art legally, in a building, Banksy has put his creativity in a box, which juxtaposes his exhibit of fake animals in their pens and cages.
Using animatronics, Banksy has created a world of mechanical animals and moving food inside the pet shop. Placed in a large fishbowl, two giant fish sticks swim around a plastic plant like a pair of goldfish. Six glass tanks line the wall next to the fishbowl; their inhabitants, consisting of a series of sausages, move as if they are alive. A mustard adorned hotdog “drinks” from a stainless steel dish in one tank, while below him, a tube of baloney squirms in its plastic casing. To the left of the baloney, a group of cocktail weenies wiggle on a rock, a container of toothpicks resting near by.
The most striking of the six are the salami, which resemble a snake emerging from its skin in slices, and the tank included a feed dish filled with olives. While it’s unusual to see processed meat displayed in this way, this is exactly how you would expect to see turtles, fish and lizards for sale in a pet shop. Though in a pet shop, the lighting wouldn’t have had the fluorescent glow of a grocery store. Because Banksy showed these pieces this way, he made the impression what if we bought our processed meat the same way we bought a gerbil.
The wall-mounted shelves behind the tanks are filled with Swanson’s TV dinners, cans of Dinty Moore beef stew, and other meaty human food, none of which you would feed a pet. In this way, Banksy relates humans to pets, and pets to the animals we unconsciously eat. The feeling of watching a hot dog come to life was more comical then disgusting, lending humor to the way we view our food.
The most disturbing part of the show is a pen of chicken nugget chicks feeding from a classic McDonald’s style sauce container, while a more naturalistic sculpture of a mama hen dozes in her roost. Even more unsettling than the nuggets dipping themselves are the series of eggs on the other side of the coop. One of the eggs has “hatched,” an un-battered nugget with its resin afterbirth puddled around the shell. These images invoke the idea of what if our meat was born the way we eat it. If an egg looked like a chicken nugget, would we have a different attitude about consuming the chicken?
Banksy also looks at animal exploitation beyond factory farming, which is in stark contrast to his last New York show where some viewers chastised him for animal abuse after he painted and displayed a live elephant. In this section of the exibit, Banksy focuses on the idea of manipulation of animals for human benefit.
In a pen viewable from inside and outside the shop, a white rabbit sits on her hind legs filing her nails with an emery board, the scritch-scratch of her grooming barely audible, but distracting, above the Johnny Cash and classic country music playing in the shop. She wears a pearl necklace, blush, and eyeliner, and her automated head tilts seductively. Her vanity mirror is laden with makeup by Cover Girl, which is made by Proctor & Gamble, a company that commonly uses animal testing for their products. By displaying the rabbit with animal tested makeup on, Banksy draws the viewer to question if beauty is important enough to destroy another being and what if we tested on humans, would we still wear the eyeliner?
A chimpanzee sits in a cage on the other end of the shop. He wears large DT770 Pro headphones and watches chimps having sex on the Discovery Channel while breathing heavily and rubbing his crotch. In his foot he clutches an empty Budweiser can, and on his right, sits a local pizza box scattered with crusts and a pack of Marlboros. On the left side of him rests a National Geographic magazine with the cover article, “Who Killed the Mountain Gorillas?” But, he remains fixed and glassy eyed as the chimps copulate on the screen. By this image, Banksy makes a statement about how Americans ignore what’s going on in the animal kingdom by drowning it out with booze, porn and food.
The last in this trio is the leopard. From the outside, it appears to be a asleep on the style of branch you would usually see in the zoo. Its tail swings in rhythm, and you can almost fancy it breathes. But enter the shop and cross to its other side and the leopard turns out to be a coat, positioned to look like a gutted animal with the brass buckle doubling as the wild cat’s balls. How could anyone want to skin a leopard from the zoo? It makes wearing fur look truly cruel, without the in-your face tactics of PETA activists who throw paint on rich women in Manhattan.
Banksy’s show poignantly comments on our view of animals as products, without chastising viewers for their choices. Rather, he simply illustrates some of the current issues relating to animals. The show directs the viewer to ask the question, “Hey, did you ever look at it this way?” And, based on the disgusted and intrigued reactions of the people in the Village Pet Shop, they haven’t, which makes his show a success.
Here are five pieces from five different shows in DUMBO. This weekend is the DUMBO Arts Festival so this represents just a sliver of the opening night.
By Flora Rocco
20 Jay Street (DUMBO)
Pizza features a series of photographs of the artist consuming an entire pizza, box, roasted chilies and all. The highly saturated images capture the action of eating this cheesy treat and manage to make the viewer hungry at the same time. Flora Rocco said the inspiration behind her photo project was to show a woman eating alone, something she views as different then when a woman eats in front of other people. Not only does this series capture the spirit of stuffing your face, but Rocco’s use of bright reds separated this piece from other works in the gallery.
Illusions of Shadows
By Chang-Young Kim
Chang Young Kim Open Studio
55 Washington St. (DUMBO)
Comprised of a series of shadow paintings, Chang-Young Kim’s bright red, blue and purple images have a ghostly charm to them. At first glance, you might mistake them for basic blocks of color, but a deeper look reveals Kim’s hand, shown in various layers of silhouette. While one of these paintings proves intriguing, a whole display of them leaves the viewer underwhelmed. If he had undertaken the task of painting different parts of the body, the exhibition would have been more successful.
By Gav Barbey
Gallery Space 220
111 Front St. (DUMBO)
The process Gav Barbey goes through turned out a lot more interesting then his actual product. In Ice Works, Barbey uses blocks of melting ice and paint to create circular images of colors with a residue around the lump of pigments on a series of rectangular pieces of paper. Some of them come out neat, like the tiger’s eye looking circle, and others just look like blobs of color. Even though the images are repetitive, Barbey included a video at the gallery that shows him at work, which really added to the show.
111 Front St. (DUMBO)
Among the galleries at 111 Front St., this one was dark, unmarked, and completely bizarre. The reason for its strangeness had less to do with the odd sculptures inside, but instead, the hand written name by the open door lead to questions about the authenticity of the exhibit. Even so, this Kleenex sculpture, which looked like a crumpled piece of wrapping paper shaped like a wall sconce containing a tissue dispenser embedded in it, intrigued the passerby. Not sure if it was a real show or a guerrilla attack, the mystery around this functional sculpture turned out to be rather well made, even though we expected someone to jump out of the room at any moment.
The Artist Project
By Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy
Henry Gregg Gallery
111 Front St. (DUMBO)
Often times a photo remains just a photo. But Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy’s photos captured a special time in the art world and the people who were just making headway. His portraits included Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, as well as others. In particular, the photo of Haring captured an angle of this muralist that is not often seen. He looks so young and fresh. While the photo doesn’t maintain the sharp contrast of blacks and whites that are so popular in contemporary (and even new prints of classics) photos, the sepia tones worked well to communicate an era.
Visual artist Dennis McNett unveiled his newest creations at The Stanton Chapter (176 Stanton St. btwn. Clinton and Attorney Streets) this past Friday. Titled The Old Horned Deity, McNett utilized artists to pen in his dark ideas.
I asked McNett where he got his inspiration from and he said it was during a road trip. The endless sky stimulated him and he wanted to convey how overwhelming it was. This was why he decided to cover the gallery walls in almost pastel psychedelic patterns.
The art on display is fantastic and extremely detailed. From the giant paper mache tiger, which is decorated in black and white tiger faces, to the large eagle, also paper mache, the tiny gallery felt overwhelmed with images.
McNett’s dark and sinister drawings will have you staring at the walls and sculptures for hours, rocked in the spell of immense nature.
Skyler Chen’s “Republic of Norman” opened March 18th at Doma Cafe and Gallery in the West Village. Chen’s characters show distress in their sad eyes and droopy mouths. Many of his paintings feature young men and woman in red and white striped party hats with smeared, tired looking clown make-up on their lips. The titles are, “Unspoken Words,” “Eyes That Know Me,” “Til Kingdom Come,” among others.
I particularly liked “Isolated,” which showed a young girl with long brow hair looking very much alone. At first glance she seemed to have a chunk of her head missing, but upon closer inspection, it was actually a small bowler hat that blended into the dark background.
While some of the images were sloppy, there were other gems in Chen’s work. My roommate loved the picture below, though the title escapes me.
The art is not meant to be pretty. It’s there to make you think, to be horrified and even turned off. Kara Walker’s tragically seductive silhouettes in her exhibition at the Whitney American Museum of Art depict images of slavery, of desperation and fighting back. “It’s this lure to look at things that are hard to look at,” Walker said about her work. The show, My Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, runs until Feb. 3, 2008 and features dozens of her sketches, three videos, and large rooms with panorama scenes done in black cut-outs.
The first piece the visitor is confronted with is Gone, an Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. If you find this display too lewd or over the top, I suggest turning around and walking right out, because it doesn’t change. Most of Walker’s images force the viewer to be uncomfortable. Images of boys floating by the support of a blown up phallus, slave girls performing fellatio on white men, butchered bodies and even a dancing child spewing excrement, are seen in Walkers work. In Mistress Demand a Swift and Dramatic Empathetic Reaction Which We Obliged Her, a young black girl pushes a machete through the breast of a bound “mistress” while a slave stands to the left of her, his head contained in a strange cage type device and his arms shackles.
Walker does something that most modern artists fail to convey—feeling. Whether you are turned off, saddened, amused or educated, her silhouettes evoke some emotion. Even her loosely done Negress Notes, a series of 64 framed sketches, cause a stir. One shows a slave girl suspended between two men, performing fellatio on the father while his son sodomizes her. The simple watercolor and pen drawing induces disgust for the actions of the men but not tenderness for the girl. This example can also serve as an allegory to the American society’s repulsion at what happened to African slaves and the mild reactions we have today.
In a circular room Walker shows a young white boy wearing a soldier’s cap copulating with an older black girl with bouncing pigtails. The girl drops her watermelon slice and it falls toward a black man who watches as a baby is being born like a chick from another watermelon. Two white women peak at him through a keyhole in a door that blends into his body. On one part of the wall slaves try to escape through a wagon filled with straw, but on the other side they can’t. The circular room brings you around and around the issue, like Walker’s work, which takes slavery and human v. human to the extreme.
There are a lot of people who don’t like Kara Walker’s work. When she won the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award she was criticized harshly and called “undeserving.” So, she responded by doing more art.
But, people also love Kara Walker’s vision and this is a sign that something is moving. Despite the repetition of her theme, it is apparent that this woman has something to say and has done an amazing job telling it. The future for this artist remains exciting and the direction of her creativity is unknown. And she wrote on one of the drawings, “And what does this imply? That ARTS function to Black people is to verify the TRUTH all the time and to express collective experience.” – L. Covington