Man and Animals – Amy Stein's Domesticated

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?

In Between

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.

Howl

"Howl"

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.

Struggle

"Struggle"

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.

Roman Candle

Roman Candle

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.

Backyard

"Backyard"

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.

Window

"Window"

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.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the comment Alice. Hopefully work like this, by drawing attention to our failings, can help make a little bit of a difference.

  2. I feel pain when I see this sort of thing, but not for the typical reasons. I see these not as examples of humanity, but examples of how individuals can taint something beautiful. Perhaps I’m too optimistic? Perhaps I value humans too much? It’s hard to say…

    Regardless of my dissension, you’ve taken some beautiful and powerful photographs– I in no way mean to speak ill of your art. It’s truly wonderful.

    Respectfully,
    Leo

  3. Dear Leo, thank you for commenting on the effect that Amy’s art had on you. The beauty of art is that it doesn’t tell us what to think and we are all able to interpret it in different ways. I do not know what the artist had in mind when she created this work. My own response to this artwork is that there is no such thing as the typical ‘human being’ and there are individuals with different views and different actions. Having said that, I believe that Amy’s art does represent the cultural tide on which we all seem to be being carried – maybe unwittingly. I think the value of this art is that it does starkly spotlight our cultural frameworks and maybe get us to stop and think rather than rushing headlong blind and deaf to what we are doing. I believe that those of us who, like Amy, create art that points this stuff out must also, at some level, believe that our fellow human beings have the capacity to behave in a more positive way. Otherwise there would be no point in creating such art.

    Once again, thank you for your comment – and for your optimism. Joe

  4. Similarities with Karen Knorr’s work. I do appreciate the motivation behind these pics. Not sure about the pushiness of their meaning, though. Preaching to the choir? The one that works best for me is the bear – not, as I say, the meaning (which I find ordinary), but its form. That bizarre intrusion of white from the frame into the indeterminate black shape, set against the regular landscape. Then the punctum – the rips to eye and tooth. Flatness penetrated. There’s more going on about photography in that pic than the others.

  5. Thank you for your comment. I agree that the bear image is particularly powerful though I also like the irony of the hunter. Re your comment about preaching to the choir, I believe this is a significant issue. How does one get this sort of imagery that aspires to brand itself as ‘fine art’ out of the elitist, exclusive realms of the gallery, the collector and the rest of ‘the choir’ to a wider audience where it may actually have a positive effect?

  6. I too saw similarities with Karen Knorr’s Fables series, but I kind of like the domestic turmoil in Corinna Schnitt’s updating of the Fable in her “Once Upon a Time” video. (I saw the video at the UCR Sweeney Art gallery–I am in the middle of writing up on the questions raised by the work in exhibited in “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art.”)

  7. Neha, thank you for your comment. I have not seen the video and could not find it anywhere on the internet so I can only imagine what it might look like from the descriptions. Picking up on Tim Stilwell’s comments below regarding the ‘pushiness of meaning’, one thing that strikes me in the work of all these artists is the question of accessibility. Much conceptual art is, in my opinion, so oblique and contrived – maybe in an attempt to appear clever – that any meaning or message is lost or, at best, reaches only a very exclusive audience. In my opinion, this question of accessibility is important in art that is trying to shape views and perceptions yet it is rarely talked about by art critics and commentators – maybe because lack of accessibility to the great unwashed is one of the things that maintains the aura of superiority of the elite audience to which some of this art is attempting to appeal. Its relative accessibility is one of the things that appeals to me about Amy’s work.

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