Visual Arts

Animal Charm

The group exhibition "Fur, Feathers and Family: Our Relationship With Animals" at Arizona State University Art Museum is far better than its name.

The show of animal-themed art is aimed at children, which explains the facile title. It's the centerpiece of the museum's sixth annual Family Fun Day (July 16, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the museum), intended to get kids into the museum and teach them about art. Generally, events billed as being for the family have been dumbed down to a dill pickle's IQ level. But there's nothing condescending about this show, drawn almost entirely from the museum's permanent collection.

Sure, there's the obligatory William Wegman Weimaraner photo. There's some fun, whimsical work that's simply about the joy animals bring to our lives. But there are also pieces that broach the darker side of our relationship with animals: the circuses, the factory farms, the sport hunts.

Because the show is aimed at children, the topics are handled delicately. But they are handled, giving the show a smart, subversive punch.

British artist Sue Coe's etchings address man's less-than-friendly treatment of animals head-on. Her biting images of animals' interactions with humans are sprinkled in with gentler, more traditional imagery to striking effect.

"How farm animals are depicted in art does not always capture the reality of animal farming . . . ," reads the text on the wall amid a grouping of tranquil farm scenes by the likes of William Hart Benton and Taos School painter Ernest Blumenschein. The text goes on to explain gently that animal care has become automated and impersonal. Cut to the Coe etching of a faceless farmer tending a mother pig and her adorable bouncing baby piglets. Overhead, a swarm of buzzards circles ominously, signaling the pig family is destined for a supermarket meat bin. It's as subtle as a tire iron, but that naive muckraking is what makes Coe's work so wrenching.

There's another Coe in the "Zoo" section. This etching, Small Bear at Roadside Zoo, shows a fuzzy little bear sitting forlornly beneath a tire swing. Despair and loneliness radiate from the four-inch-tall image, its wee size accentuating the imprisoned animal's fragility and helplessness. Here's a "live" teddy bear on the brink of suicide, a harsh commentary on how we turn animals into objects for our own amusement.

Yow. Look at the image for long and you'll find yourself crying your contacts out. Let's move on to some lighthearted work, fast.

Like the pair of Richard Notkin teapots made to look as if they were carved out of a chunk of the earth beneath a city street. Sedimentary layers of dirt and asphalt, cut through with drain pipes that act as spouts, comprise the hand-built ceramic vessels. Street dogs who double as handles lounge on the top. No owners, no problems. These languid canines enjoy a freebooting lifestyle, with no need for humans.

There are some big-name artists in the show. A surprisingly mediocre watercolor of a bass by Winslow Homer proves even the masters had off days. Native American painter Fritz Scholder and Dutch abstract expressionist Karel Appel both contribute paintings of cats. True to the show's inclusive spirit, there are also hand-carved decoys and fishing lures by anonymous artisans. The objects are exquisite, but their beauty carries a bite when you remember they were designed to lure animals to their death.