How do you examine Man’s relationship with Animals and ‘nature’ in a way that doesn’t result in crass, clichéd or meaningless imagery? Amy Stein manages to do this with such a powerful artistic sensitivity that her images stop you in your tracks – well at least they did me.
In her series named “Domesticated” she examines aspects of today’s human relationship to animals and, by implication, to ‘nature’. Looking at her images, I find myself moving through a whole range of thoughts and emotions.
A deer looks forlorn sitting by the side of a highway with the lights of human habitation in the background. This simple image a stark illustration of how we have invaded these animals’ living quarters. Tomorrow will this deer just be road kill?
A coyote howls helplessly at an overbearingly bright street lamp. The coyote looks incongruous and powerless. His howls ineffectual in terrain that has been appropriated and ‘domesticated’ by humans – two pathetic trees, planted and tied down, the only nod towards the natural landscape that was once here.
The simple image of a brown bear with a white plastic bag over his face evokes all sorts of thoughts of human encroachment, discarded waste and our ability to disable, damage and destroy even the supposedly more powerful of animals through our thoughtlessness.
Two images in particular lay bare our cultural relationship to animals. Two boys terrorize and attack a defenseless, terrified raccoon trapped cowering in the corner of a basketball court. None of us can fail to recognize in this image the way our culture has led us to these behaviors – from young boys pulling the legs off spiders to whole industries abusing animals in factory farms.
And these boys will no doubt grow up to be brave and fearless he-men. Like the macho hunk featured in his hunting jacket, safely behind a wire fence as he bravely levels his shotgun and takes aim at……………a turkey! This caricature of all modern ‘hunting’ is the type of image that makes one laugh with what has been powerfully described as ‘the laugh that makes you cry’ at how pathetic so many of our behaviors have become.
The last image I will reproduce here is one that, for me, encapsulates the relationship that our urban society now has with ‘nature’. The elderly lady pictured here is enclosed in her artificial, uninspiring, cookie-cutter human habitation. She keeps caged birds – a pitiful attempt at having some form of contact with the natural world – even as she is reduced to peering out of her own cage to an outside world she doesn’t seem to understand or have any meaningful contact with.
Like all imagery, Amy Stein’s work is much more powerful when seen in the flesh than when reproduced on the web (her first solo exhibit in NY has just closed at Clamp Art). As is always the case, not all images in the series manage to be quite so effective. A bird caught in a net; a dead rabbit in a wheelbarrow; an elderly lady holding a dead bird. These images tend towards the ordinary and don’t quite manage to pack the same punch. But overall, this is a marvelous and highly effective series.
How is it done? Amy’s images are all constructed tableaux vivants in the cinematographic tradition. The animals shown here are often taxidermy specimens; the human subjects are models or actors and the scenes are constructed – though based on real events. These carefully constructed scenes hover somewhere between fiction and reality – a fact that comes across subliminally in all the images and which no doubt contributes to the strength of their impact.
Because it is a personal interest, I spend a lot of time looking at imagery that focuses on animals and the human-animal relationship. I cannot remember the last time I was struck by a set of images quite as much as I have been struck by this series. I hope that Amy will choose to turn her considerable talents to some more of the pressing issues that we all face. Climate change could be an interesting challenge.