Animal-Themed Art From UT Enlivens Downtown

It's not every day that a person can stroll down Gay Street with nothing but plate glass between herself and art by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol. Works in the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery's show Genus species: Ewing, on display through Jan. 14, are, for the time being, right there at street level, a part of Knoxville's tattered urban fabric.

Animals—whether of the city, land, or sea—are an everyday presence enriching our lives, reminding us of what it means to be humans sharing the planet with other beings. And they're the subject of Genus species, a theme presumably chosen to unify more than 40 selections from the Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture's collection. (By the way, in the hierarchy of biological classification, a species belongs to a genus.) Animals have, after all, inspired artists and others since hirsute individuals painted on cave walls.

Warhol's 1966 silkscreen print with an eye-popping hot pink cow might be louder than anything else in the show, but it's no more captivating than pieces by Bessie Harvey and Gina Bobrowski displayed in the gallery's windows. One of the few three-dimensional offerings, Ned Cartledge's "Ivan the Hog" (referring to 1980s insider trading but disturbingly relevant to today's Occupy Wall Street movement), might pack more punch on a pedestal in the exhibition space's entrance, not tucked away within its depths. Cartledge's porcine creature, sporting dollar sign spots and Ivan Boesky's grinning mug, has Boesky's credo, "Greed is healthy," written on two sides. Its folk art/Americana feel seems particularly appropriate to our culture's never-ending habit of sticking it to the poor.

Harvey's 1989 piece "Jonah and the Whale" (approximately 3 inches by 12 inches, painted wood and beads) seems larger than it is, perhaps because the artist reduces narrative to its sparest form. Initially resembling a sinewy and disjointed hunk of driftwood, interlocking forms of man and whale reveal Harvey's ability to convey the essence of both: the whale's serene power and the grimacing figure's helplessness.

Bobrowski's "Cat," from 1991, similar in size to Harvey's piece, has the shapes of small feline heads stacked on its haunches, not unlike Dr. Seuss' Things 1 and 2. With a mischievous persona and loosely painted marks integrated into its ceramic form, reminiscent of drawings by both Maurice Sendak and Marc Chagall, "Cat" balances what could otherwise be too cute: Rebecca Wake's mounted head, "Taxidermied Unicorn" (2009).

Last, but not the least of the sculpture in the exhibition, is an unknown Mexican artist's colorful wood mask (a gift from UT's beloved art history professor Dale Cleaver—gifts, bequests, and monetary donations are essential to expansion of the collection). Incorporating a human face into the back of a komodo dragon-like reptile, its neck swung around and fangs bared just inches from the shrieking cara, it's not something you'd hang on your bedroom wall.

Incidentally, the Ewing collection has enough animal-related works to mount a second part of the present show, not to mention works with other subject matter. Nevertheless, Genus species is the first such full-scale exhibition since UT art department chair C. Kermit Ewing began assembling pieces during the 1950s, accumulating art that would remain in the school's permanent possession. (In the early 1980s, the Ewing Gallery's director, Sam Yates, established a fund for purchases.) What's terrific about the works on view is that they include efforts by UT alumni and faculty members, both current and past, presented alongside art by the aforementioned superstars.

Although the kingdom Animalia thread tying Genus species together is effective, the show could exclude pieces that are awkward, if only because of the media they employ. For instance, whereas prints are abundant—in the form of lithographs, silkscreen, intaglio, woodblock, dry-point, and viscosity prints—examples of painting are limited. Diversity is one of the show's most appealing aspects, yet because of the relative lack of paintings—whether a matter of affordability or the relative quantity or quality of animal-related works in the Ewing collection—Genus species might benefit from dropping its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

Oddly enough, Paul Lee's HD projection, "Labor," despite being the only video presented, is an asset to the exhibition, with its 15 minutes or so of up-close insects (predominantly bees) and recorded sounds from nature serving as a sort of soundtrack for viewers. Projected somewhat high on the wall and without adequate darkness, Lee's piece is intriguing in spite of less-than-ideal visibility.

Black-and-white prints are the photography in Genus species (the sole exception being Diane Fox's marvelously layered color image, almost a found collage, featuring a lifelike natural-history museum zebra). With everything from Mark Steinmetz's portrait of a man walking his Chihuahua ("Knoxville Periphery," 1991) and Ed Westcott's mid-1940s Oak Ridge pictures to Walker Evans' "Mule Team and Poster," from 1936, the photography presented is memorable. Evans' composition-driven image, juxtaposing the illustrated glamour of 1920s Silas Green show flappers with a sleepy mule cart, is both amusing and sad.

Non-photographic prints in the show are plentiful, and varied enough to warrant a separate review. Let's just say that stand-outs include Sue Coe's "Cross My Heart and Hope to Die," Beauvais Lyons' "Female North American Raccoon Crow," Deborah Mae Broad's "Horsepower," and Braque's "Brown Bird in Flight." Byron McKeeby, UT's printmaker extraordinaire from 1965 until his untimely death in 1984, is well represented with numerous always-fascinating works. All in all, Genus species, in keeping with the holidays, has something for pretty much everyone.