What are animals to us? Pets, pests, prey, predators; objects of beauty, terror, and wonder; sources of food, modes of transportation, subjects for scientific experimentation. They embody our fantasies of instinctual freedom and our fears of destruction and chaos. And, as proved by ``Going Ape: Confronting Animals in Contemporary Art," a mildly entertaining exhibition at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, they offer a great fund of imagery and ideas for artists.
Assembled by an in-house team of curators, the exhibition does not set out to say anything new -- or, for that matter, anything in particular -- about its enduringly popular theme. It simply presents works by 20 artists who view animals from almost as many different perspectives. That diversity is compounded by much technical and stylistic variety, including realistic painting, surrealistic drawing and sculpture, Postmodernist pastiche, documentary photography, multimedia installation, and video. All of which is diverting but undermined by a general lack of focus.
In her catalog essay, the DeCordova's director of curatorial affairs, Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, gives a good account of the manifold ways that humans relate to animals. But the exhibition itself is like a conversation among too many people who are neither listening nor speaking to one another.
Not that there are no interesting works in the show. John Harden's ingenious film ``La vie d'un chien" tells a story of a Parisian scientist who discovers and popularizes a recreational drug that turns humans temporarily into dogs. Conveyed through a montage of black-and-white stills, a French voiceover, and English subtitles, it is a clever, funny, and profound social satire.
In a more serious mood, Frank Noelker's portrait photographs of chimpanzees accompanied by wall labels describing their horrendously abusive subjection to scientific experimentation is heartbreaking and infuriating. James Grashow's cartoonish, finely detailed sculpture of herons wading in a stream among wildflowers -- all made from countless little scraps of painted cardboard -- is technically amazing and uncannily vivid, and his collection of 100 geometric cardboard monkeys frolicking overhead on trapeze bars in the museum's main stairway is delightful. And Catherine Chalmers's intensely colorful, digitally enhanced video ``Safari" is a hallucinatory, close-up study of exotic insects and amphibians in a jungle habitat that she simulated in her studio. But subject matter aside, it is hard to see what these works have to do with one another.
Other notable pieces include a documentary video of elephants making paintings in a Thai ``elephant art academy" by the team of Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Catherine Hamilton's old-masterly ink drawings of squirrels and birds, and Kitty Wales's allegorically ambitious installation of a knitting machine, a giant pile of sweaters, and lifelike raggedy dogs made of black and white patches of knitted material.
One thing that is missing from the show is form or technique that somehow matches the zoological subject matter -- not counting, that is, the two Abstract Expressionist paintings on paper by elephants displayed along with Komar and Melamid's video. Most of the show's works are made by relatively unadventurous representational means. Josie Morway's large oil paintings of birds copied from ornithology books, Shelley Reed's grisaille paintings of animals copied from 16th- and 17th-century European paintings, and Peter Smuts's big, glossy photographs of stuffed animals immersed in candy-colored liquids are all competently made but far from startlingly original.
So it is illuminating to compare a separate but related exhibition of works by the eminent sculptor William Tucker, also at the museum. Tucker, who made his mark as an inventive geometric formalist in England in the 1960s, now lives in Western Massachusetts. Today he is best known for the imposing Expressionist works he has been producing during the past two decades: towering, lumpy, and bulbous, abstract bronze masses that suggest waves or eruptions of mud or fecal matter.
The present exhibition, titled ``Horses," focuses on a theme he began to explore 20 years ago. It features 10 bronzes from 1986 and '87 that look more or less vaguely like equine heads, a set of similarly semi-abstract charcoal drawings from 2003, and a more explicitly horselike head with an open mouth and nose straining upward called ``Greek Horse" from 2003. Also part of the show is a large outdoor sculpture that belongs to the museum's permanent collection, a bronze piece called ``Chinese Horse" (2003) that looks more like a big, natural rock than a horse, and a collection of hand-size horse studies in clay, bronze, and plaster.
The horse heads of the '80s have a raw, unfinished look, as if they were embryonic , mythic creatures emerging from some primordial muck. Without knowing their titles, you might not realize they represent horses. (Some, it must be said, look rather like much enlarged stool samples.) In the recent ``Greek Horse" and the charcoal drawings, the heads have a phallic aspect; they appear to embody some kind of propulsively ascendant, even orgasmic sexual energy. They have spiritual implications, too: Reaching upward as they do, they suggest a psychological effort to connect the terrestrial and the celestial.
However you may interpret Tucker's works, it is clear that meaning is as urgently alive in their form as it is in their content. By contrast, the artists in ``Going Ape" tend to illustrate rather than viscerally embody their ideas. Illustration is not necessarily a bad thing, but if the means of representation are too conventional -- and not wild and unpredictable as the show's title leads you to expect -- the effect will be less than rousing. ``Going Ape" doesn't go ape enough.