“Animalia” at Ann Street Gallery | Visual Art | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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“Animalia” at Ann Street Gallery 

click to enlarge Portrait of a Snowshoe Hare in Summer, Erin Gardner, felt, painted aspen wood.
  • Portrait of a Snowshoe Hare in Summer, Erin Gardner, felt, painted aspen wood.

Historically, the first gods were amalgams of animals and humans. Indians prayed (and continue to pray) to the elephant-headed Ganesh; Egyptians worshiped the jackal-headed Anubis. Many of us see divinity in our cats and dogs and cockatiels. "Animalia," a show at the Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, celebrates nonhumans in contemporary art.

Twenty-seven artists depict horses, chickens, cats, dogs, snakes, foxes, caterpillars and one squid. Gretchen Woodman's drawing Sounding is a clever image of a church bell with a deer's head as the clapper. "Animalia" runs through January 11.

Particularly appealing are the felted sculptures of Erin Gardner. Four are mock trophies: a barred owl, a polar bear, and two snowshoe hares. Two are complete animal replicas: an orca and a white deer. All are rather small: the deer's only six-inches long. The "trophies" consist of animal heads mounted on painted aspen wood. (Unlike a real trophy, there's no armature.) Do I imagine sadness in the eye of the polar bear? Certainly today's arctic bears face tragedy, as climate change erodes their hunting grounds.

Gardner is parodying the hunting trophy, that unnatural union of laminated wood and animal fur which is itself an inadvertent surrealist statement. Mounted heads satisfy a particular type of male ego. Gardner's "trophies" express a different kind of pride—the pride of a maker rather than a killer. Constructed from wool, hers are, in a sense, vegan animals.

Needle felting utilizes a barbed needle to repeatedly poke into a mass of wool to lock the fibers together, forming felt. Concentrated indentations in any area of the wool make it smaller and denser. Layers may be added to build up form and create detail.

Gardner studied painting in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, but found her art schedule changing over time. "When I had my children, I more fully got into needle felting as my creative outlet because it is portable, nontoxic, and very easy to pick up and put down," Gardner writes via email.

She was initially drawn to mounted head sculpture as a way of saving time; a full-body animal could take more than a month to construct. "I think of the mounted heads as portraits of the animals, and as a way to focus on their most expressive component, their faces," Gardner explains. The titles reflect this approach, for example Portrait of a Snowshoe Hare in Summer.

Sometimes Gardner chooses a subject based on a personal encounter. While driving on the New York State Thruway one spring afternoon, she saw a phantasmal white animal, which she later identified as a Leucistic White-Tailed Deer. This creature lacks pigmentation in its fur, yet possesses brown eyes, and is known as the "ghost deer" in Native American culture, where it has mythic status.

Gardner grew up in in the Ulster County hamlet of Shokan, but now lives in Central New York with her husband and two daughters. She owns a felting supply and workshop center in New Hartford, Grey Fox Mercantile, where she instructs students in the meditative art of felting.

"Animalia," will remain at the Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh through January 11.

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