If only dumb animals could speak! So often more intelligent than men.
—Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received Ideas
As a general principle, artist-curated exhibitions can be untidy and idiosyncratic in ways that museums and the market abhor, and this can make them interesting, disorienting, dissonant—even iconoclastic in the best instances. There’s a sense of this wild energy at Animal Farm, an exhibition of more than fifty works (primarily paintings) by thirty-some artists, curated by Sadie Laska at the Brant Foundation in pastoral Greenwich, Connecticut. The works themselves are often powerful, but the story they tell together is compromised at best.
On the question of coherence, the trouble with invoking an allegory is that one expects the reference itself to remain allegorical. It becomes a guiding principle, or else it leads people astray. This is even more true with a sprawling show. Animal Farm is, of course, a reference to George Orwell’s 1945 allegory for Stalinism, in which an idealistic group of farm animals, led by two revolutionary pigs, ossifies into a replica of the state. It’s also, according to Artforum, a reference to an Amazon ad that targeted Laska after the 2016 election, recommending the recent addition to the best-seller list as antidote to the new regime. The phrase “Orwellian” connotes more so the ominous continuity of 1984’s technocracy than Animal Farm’s false prophets and dangerous allure of ideals. The problem is that by invoking the latter, Laska’s Animal Farm suggests the existence of the former—in art, that is, not just politics. The exhibition, structured as an intergenerational dialogue of Pop artists (more or less), suggests continuity absent dissent.
The first third or so of the exhibition is perhaps the most acute. It collects works by, among others, Jeanette Mundt, Sue Williams, Wally Hedrick, Don Van Vliet, Spencer Sweeney, and the artist herself. Alex Bag presents the only video in the exhibition, Le Cruel et curieux vie du la Salmonellapod (The Cruel and Curious Life of the Salmonellapod, 2000), a grotesque parody of nature documentaries that draws out the genre’s masculine orientation, channeling it into an imaginary creature sewn from animal carcasses that reproduces by laying its eggs in the male’s throat and bashing its mate to near-death. Sue Williams’s The Bill of Rights (1990) illustrates a flippant pun that profanes the supposed sanctity of the United States’ Founding Fathers, casting them (not undeservedly) as leering creeps. William Copley, the West Coast Surrealist and collector, is represented in-depth with ten works, most prominently a series of acrylics and charcoals that literally take as their subject a horse’s ass. Such taboos, in as much as they relate to cultural iconography and the zeitgeist, are constantly at threat throughout the show—at risk of being mocked, subverted, inverted, repurposed, and stripped down to their parts. Paired with goats, deer, and imaginary creatures, the result is often a kind of tongue-in-cheek, vaguely pagan idolatry in which animals are merely representative of transgressive force, the nature of which is hard to pin down because it varies by work.
Then, a shift in tone. The third gallery is devoted to all-over paintings and works made on the floor—at least, supposedly. There’s also Laura Owens’s stunning Flemish portrait of a goat (2006), Agathe Snow’s Coucou (2017) suspended from the ceiling like a crucifix, and Sarah Braman’s Badger Den (Let’s Read Together) (2017). Paintings by Julian Schnabel, Thornton Dial, Rita Ackermann, Joe Bradley, and others largely abandon iconography for material in their reshaping of cultural clay (Laska does this too in her own work, hung in an earlier gallery).
There’s a tendency to situate this form of critique—in which semiotic meaning is recharged with subversive intent—as a byproduct of midcentury hyper-capital- ism, which Animal Farm does by opening with beatnik Wally Hedrick’s Peace (1953) and ending with a gallery of predecessors; early paintings by Kenny Scharf (1978, 1981, 1983–84), two untitled Keith Harings (1981 and 1982), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Arroz con Pollo (1981) all toy with ‘80s Americana. However, its roots extend back to, at latest, high Romanticism. In the introduction of New Directions’ 1954 edition, Jacques Barzun writes that Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas is a “castigation of the cliché” purposed to “testify to the nineteenth century’s growing awareness of mass production in word and thought.” Animal Farm accepts this lineage unconditionally; the press release weaves disparate downtown artists together in a tale about a hobnobbing lobster.
“Some of the utterances pilloried are manifestly true,” Barzun writes. “What damns them is the fact that they are the only thing ever said on the subject.” In their disparagement of movies, logos, emojis, and flags, in their hollow veneration of animalistic vigor and decades-old revolution, few stop to ask, specifically, who today controls semiotic generation. Their own sacred cows are beyond reproach. Come to think of it, the Brant Foundation (as in Peter Brant, the publishing tycoon and childhood friend of Donald Tr*mp) isn’t set on a farm at all; it’s alongside a polo field. Does anyone want to talk about that?