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March 27 - April 29, 2001 at University Art Museum, CSU Long Beach, Long Beach

by Mario Cutajar

"Caterpillar and Tomato Remains", from the "Food Chain" series, photograph, 1994-96.
Courtesy Rare.

"Snake Eating a Baby Mouse," from the "Pinkies" series, photograph, 1995-97.
Courtesy Rare.

In her first West Coast museum show, New Yorker Catherine Chalmers is represented by 16 poster-sized color photographs from two series (Food Chain and Pinkies), which like glorified science projects record in graphic detail moments illustrative of the unpitying processes of procreation, predation, and consumption that define both nature and The Sopranos. The visual links that constitute Food Chain include images of a tobacco hornworm caterpillar eating a tomato, a praying mantis devouring the caterpillar (like “squeezing paint out of a tube” according to the artist, who used to be a painter before she turned to photography), and a frog swallowing the mantis. (The last-mentioned will remind fans of Ren and Stimpy of the time that Ren remarked that “thanks to the miracle of high speed photography we now can see how ugly the inside of someone’s mouth can be.”) Pinkies derives its title from the pet-trade name for baby mice, which happen to make perfect snacks for hungry snakes.

On viewing these works, my first inclination is to wonder what if anything distinguishes them from the innumerable images of animal mayhem disseminated by nature shows and the voyeuristic video genre associated with titles like When Animals Attack. As the pristine white grounds on which Chalmers’ creatures slither and dine suggest, the art is in the self-conscious formalism that frames her subjects, a device further amplified by the institutional framing of these images within the immaculate precincts of the galleries and museums that display them.

In nature bugs, frogs, and snakes interact in the vermin equivalent of a busy Taco Bell overrun by teenagers. In Chalmers’ photographs, the unceasingly fecund and voracious creatures are transported to the minimalist ambience of a trendy Beverly Hills restaurant where their bad manners (i.e. the messy imperatives of biology) stand out with greater force.

As a recent Artnews feature reveals, Chalmers goes to great pains to ensure the photogenicity of her subjects. The resulting images possess the kind of tension between beauty and repugnance that makes for arresting advertising. The critical claims that have been made for them are overreaching and tend to betray the insular self-importance of the art world. Using insects miniaturizes that fascination with nature in the raw that has been a staple of the romantic imagination since at least Delacroix. The source of that fascination is not difficult to figure out: it’s a reaction against the technological insulation of human society from nature. Chalmers’ photographs, however, though explicitly focused on natural behavior are themselves highly unnatural products. Their closest kin is not nature photography but pornography. What they reveal through being dressed up as art is the prissy repressivness of the art world itself and the larger repressiveness of a culture which takes aesthetic delight in the biologically fated behavior of insects, but cannot abide the thought that men and women may be as bound to their biological natures as caterpillars and frogs.

"Praying Mantis and a Caterpillar," from the "Food Chain" series, photograph, 1994-96.
Courtesy Rare.

"Frog and a Praying Mantis," from the "Food Chain" series, photograph, 1994-96.
Courtesy Rare.