Artist examines communication between animals and humans

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Artist examines communication between animals and humans
Artist Dana Sherwood on the film set The Artists’ Bedroom Bestiary in Old Lyme, CT, 2021. Photo by Paul Mutino, Courtesy of the artist.

OLD LYME, CONN.- Dana Sherwood: Animal Appetites and Other Encounters in Wildness, on view at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, May 21 through September 18, 2022, is the first museum presentation surveying the work of multimedia artist Dana Sherwood (b. 1977). The New York-based artist’s pioneering approach to understanding humans’ relationship to wild nature comes through experiments with cross-species communication. The resulting films, sculpture installations, and paintings created over the past decade offer unique opportunities for audiences to engage with discussions about the environment, global food chains, feminism, animal studies, and spirituality. The exhibition is a collaboration between the artist and the Museum’s Associate Curator, Jennifer Stettler Parsons, Ph.D. It takes place throughout the Museum’s site, with installations in the galleries, on the grounds, and in the Griswold House, a National Historic Landmark. With a legacy of cultivating artistic inspiration, the Florence Griswold Museum is the ideal site to share Sherwood’s work. “To be able to receive visionary artists such as Dana Sherwood honors the spirit of artistic creation fostered by the members of the Lyme Art Colony,” states Museum Director Rebekah Beaulieu, Ph.D. “Contemporary artists compel us to expand our comprehension of the spectacular environment we are so fortunate to inhabit.”

Untamed Guests Inside, Outside, and in the Dining Room

“When you invite the chaos of nature as a collaborator, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.” ~Dana Sherwood

Sherwood considers nature as both her subject and collaborator. She is known for her playful, evolving attempts to communicate with wild animals through elaborate nocturnal banquets that inspire her paintings and sculptures. After researching the animals’ natural diets, the artist creates beautiful cakes of raw meat and colorful fruit-studded gelatin molds. She sets the lavish displays in view of night-vision cameras to film the animals who unknowingly participate in her experiments. Using food as a vehicle for communication, the infrared videos of raccoons, cats, and possums demolishing or ignoring the artist’s offerings prove the limits of our human-centered thinking. Sherwood states, “I am drawn to the allure of taming nature into culture by way of flour, sugar, and eggs . . . While I am working in the kitchen to make food for all the animals I feed, we are surveying each other from a distance and it is confusing to wonder who is taming who.” Her projects underscore the unpredictability of nature and encourage viewers to contemplate how animals have adapted to the encroachment of urban and suburban development. Viewing the films within various installation settings—on monitors attached to an animal feeding station, a rustic food cart, a commercial kitchen’s pastry trolley, or projected into a yurt-like tent—creates an immersive experience. For Banquets in the Dark Wildness, visitors view lively interactions between a possum and a raccoon on a video monitor set within a steel baking rack filled with aluminum and enamel cooking implements, books, and “meat” made of plaster and clay. The often-whimsical installations inspire audiences to consider broader topics such as our engagement with mass media and the environmental impact spurred by humans’ consumption of natural resources.

In 2021 Sherwood served as the Museum’s Artist-in-Residence, when she created two commissions motivated by the Museum’s core story and the institution’s continuing environmentally conscious efforts today. For The Artists’ Bedroom Bestiary Sherwood filmed a new video on a custom-built stage set that was inspired by the ca. 1910 artist’s bedroom in Florence Griswold’s historic boardinghouse. Over three months the artist and her assistant placed culinary offerings in the outdoor bedroom (including molded confections similar to those made by Griswold herself) for animals to partake. In an amazing scene, an audacious raccoon climbs the wall to claim grapes arrayed along the mantelpiece. Even more surprising is a mother possum with a dozen babies clinging to her back. Visitors to the exhibition can view the set beside the film of the nighttime feasts.

Sherwood has collaborated with her husband, the artist Mark Dion, on projects examining the culture of nature. In 2008 the pair created The Conservatory for Confectionery Curiosities to display at the Tuileries Garden in Paris. It was most recently exhibited at Storm King Art Center and deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and arrives on the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum as part of this exhibition. The glass conservatory is filled with resin desserts that resemble a marvelous skyline, but closer inspection reveals insects and decay amid the decadence, harbingers of a society in decline. Let them eat cake?

Sherwood also activated the historic Griswold House with a contemporary intervention in its period dining room. The commission, The Confectionery Lives of Artists and Other Organisms, reflects on the idea of hospitality, both past and present. It features live snails in bell jars consuming plants like delicate snapdragons, dewy orchids, and soft vegan vanilla layer cake. They enact the process of entropy as they eat. As the plants decay they grow new organisms that colonize the nutrients. While the snails explore their contained worlds, Sherwood surrounds them on the dining room tables with hand-sculpted confections that return the viewer to the carnivalesque and the setting’s memory of hijinks and art-making during the heyday of the Lyme Art Colony. Butter yellow and bubblegum pink painted “frosting” decorate an eye-popping cake ribbed with orange red “hot dogs,” based on fresh concoctions the artist has set out for nocturnal banquets.

Reimagining the (un)Domestic Goddess

The feminine presence pervades Sherwood’s works. Watercolor sketches and oil paintings created in conjunction with the films reveal the artist’s investigations into the female experience, ritual, and myth. Paintings depict versions of Alice in Wonderland, Persephone, or Medusa as heroine-protagonists in her plots, juxtaposed with animals, food, and ancient iconography. The characters process meat into sausages, hold up platters as offerings, and, in Wildness Face to Face in the Palmettos, even dine with the animals in a shared feast. Staged as life-giving rituals of making and receiving, the scenarios celebrate the interdependence of the human and animal worlds and blur the boundaries between the identities of housewife, pastry chef, and goddess. These works focus a fresh lens on the recent global re-examination of gender equality and social justice. Sherwood insists on empowering strong female individuals who work with nature instead of trying to assert supremacy.

Connecting Seen & Unseen

Sherwood’s experiments bring visibility to the animal world and reveal her ambition to investigate intangible energies, such as dreams, magic, or spiritual practices, as avenues of connection between humans and the natural world. Her project See/Sight (Equus Mongolia) was conceptualized between 2016 and 2019 in New York, Ireland, and Mongolia and consists of a black and white film projected inside a pink, yurt-like tent. A montage of a desert with grazing horses in the distance and Sherwood’s son playing with rocks appears and melds into each other. The toddler touches the camera’s lens to explore it, just as the horse does in a subsequent frame. The creature sniffs and nuzzles the lens with its nose, underscoring the parallels between human and animal behavior. The open flaps of the tent tantalizingly conceal and reveal the installation inside, which creates a viewing experience that is at once intimate, dramatic, and transporting. In our current moment of overstimulation by digital screens, information accessibility, and forms of surveillance, Sherwood’s projects foreground the significance of one-on-one communion, inner guidance, and unseen and mysterious forces.

Inside the Belly

The artist found inspiration for her “belly paintings” in the cozy atmosphere of the See/Sight tent, which she likened to being in the belly of a horse. “I was looking for a way to have a silent conversation, energetically, with horses, in particular, and thinking about how nurturing they are, and the long history of horses being used as therapeutic tools for people who are trying to recover and heal from trauma,” reveals Sherwood. “So, I started to consider the horse as a kind of mother.” Not long after Sherwood initiated the series, the spread of the COVID-19 virus forced people worldwide to shelter in place. Under these difficult circumstances she continued to create painting after painting of women surrounded by decadent confections and cakes, sheltered inside the bellies of different species including rabbits, swans, owls, snails, and hummingbirds. In these works, like Inside the Belly of the Rabbit (with green grasses), the female figure occupies a realm unto herself, like a reimagined Garden of Eden. As exhibition curator Jenny Parsons explains, “Since the 1970s feminist art historians have questioned the central role of the female nude in visual art, asking why women’s bodies must be subjected to the male gaze. In this series Sherwood reclaims the female body as deserving of reverence and nourishment—a site for care and indulgence rather than objectification.” Here, the woman bends in a yoga-like resting pose toward the head of the rabbit and a spread of beautiful foods. Her pink skin seems to reflect the hue of her mother rabbit’s fur. Sherwood’s intermingling of human and nonhuman animals, plants, and confectionery treats underscores that we are part of the same system—we are all nature.

Exhibition Catalogue: Dana Sherwood: Animal Appetites and Other Encounters in Wildness

The exhibition is accompanied by a 204-page catalogue, the first monographic publication on Dana Sherwood, produced by Lucia Marquand, and distributed by Artbook D.A.P. It is written and edited by Jennifer Stettler Parsons, Ph.D., with contributions by Tamar Adler, Amy Kurtz Lansing, Petra Lange-Berndt, Celeste Olalquiaga, Dana Sherwood, Li Sumpter, and Cary Wolfe. The texts expand on the exhibition’s themes of humans’ relationship to the environment with essays exploring Sherwood’s linkage to the legacy of the Lyme Art Colony, hospitality and its philosophical contexts, and the artist’s use of mythic archetypes. Generously illustrated sections of plates are interspersed with facsimiles of the artist’s sketchbooks, followed by an interview with the artist, a biographical chronology, and a checklist of works. A special section reproduces seven historic recipes by Lyme Colony matron Florence Griswold.

Dana Sherwood

Born on Long Island in 1977, Dana Sherwood graduated from the University of Maine in 2004 and has exhibited throughout the Americas, Europe, and Australia. She has had solo exhibitions at Nagle-Draxler Reiseburogalerie (Cologne), Denny Dimin Gallery (New York), and Kepler Art-Conseil (Paris). She has also shown her work at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Storm King Art Center, Jack Shainman Gallery: The School, The Fellbach Sculpture Triennial (Germany), Pink Summer Gallery (Italy), Kunsthal Aarhus, The Palais des Beaux Arts Paris, Marian Boesky Gallery, Socrates Sculpture Park, Flux Factory, The Biennial of Western New York, Prospect 2: New Orleans, Scotia Bank Nuit Blanche (Toronto), dOCUMENTA 13. The presentation at the Florence Griswold Museum is her first solo museum exhibition.

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