This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.
A cat is a wild animal, a predator prowling for meat. It is simultaneously a cuddly pet, the subject of its own genre of cute videos. Yet more than 21,000 felines per year have been used for testing. Princeton-based artist Hetty Baiz takes a look at how we treat animals in Nonhuman Animals: Eat, Test, Love, on view at the Bernstein Gallery Sept. 16 through Oct. 18.
The artist took her inspiration from Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, in which the ethicist, Princeton University Professor and founder of the animal rights movement argues that pain causes as much suffering whether felt by a human or a mouse. Singer came up with the term “speciesism” to describe the preference humans give to fellow humans. When people use other animals to test their medicines and cosmetics, he writes, it is as wrong as racism orsexism.
Nearly 40 years after Animal Liberation, even more animals are suffering in industrial farms. Baiz gives new voice to Singer’s writings with large-scale collages of animals. Her cat is made up of Chinese papers feathered to a furry texture, with prints that suggest leopards, pumas, jaguars. It is not a specific breed of cat, but captures the feral essence. The expression in the eyes is one of softness, just before the animal is about to pounce. Even the mitten-y paws conceal weapons.
With its lugubrious eyes, how could anyone subject a beagle to testing? And yet nearly 65,000 are used in experiments each year, Baiz finds. As lab animals as well as pets, beagles are valued for their docile nature.
Remember all those psychological experiments done on rhesus monkeys, raised by cloth mothers? Monkeys are among our closest relatives – we identify with simian behavior – but Baiz’s animal is singed from a day at the lab. Wearing a coat of multi-patterned paper, it crosses its hands and curls its toes. There’s a wild look in the eyes, but the hands and feet suggest it’s been tamed, perhaps by electric shock. This is not a monkey who’s having fun swinging in trees.
Baiz first developed a connection to plants, trees, water, insects and animals as a child, summering at her family cottage in Pennsylvania. During more recent visits, she sought to express her angst and caring through animal collages. Baiz thought about how integral animals are to the environment. Animals are the very embodiment of nature, and yet human activities often lead to their extinction.
The 12 paintings in Nonhuman Animals: Eat, Test, Love are inspired by the animals Singer wrote about – animals that are raised for eating or testing in the lab, or harmed by human activities.
The large-scale works convey the beauty of animals that are often reduced to mere products. A viewer wants to stand at a distance to take it all in, but also get up close to study the rich detail.
Baiz is a paper collector. She uses hand-made, hand-painted papers as well as photographs from her travels to Asia and Africa, banana paper from South America, papyrus from Egypt, and Thai and Korean papers. Tearing these into bits and rearranging them, Baiz brings together many cultures on one canvas.
In her studio, the torn bits lie in piles on the floor, and like a painter dipping into color, she pulls pieces of paper from her piles as her eye and heart guide her. She continues to build up the canvas surface from hundreds of pieces of torn paper. The only paint on the canvas may be in the splattered background. After layers and layers of paper are applied, Baiz may scrape or cut the surface, or burn it with a blowtorch, until the desired texture is achieved.
The animals’ shapes and curves are articulated by her drawing with the torn papers, then finished with painted embellishment. Texture – rough-hewn, mottled, burned – tells the story. A calf was made from old linoleum floor tiles torn up during a renovation project.
Pigs are known to be affectionate, gregarious and intelligent. They are playful around their companions, care for each other and respond to commands, yet we raise them in darkness, in pens where they can’t move and their hooves bleed from wires. The pen is designed for ease of manure removal, not the comfort of the pig. The confinement makes it impossible to live their natural routines – they can only eat, sleep and lie down. So disturbed when she learned about the pig’s treatment, Baiz tore off pink paper that had been collaged for the pig’s body, leaving fragments, then painted it black. It expresses gloom and darkness, with no expression in the face, an anonymous animal raised for bacon and pork.
The cow, raised for steak and hamburgers, is sacred in India, but a commodity in our culture. (Baiz no longer eats beef or any other mammal.) Her cow incorporates words: speciesism, flesh, sirloin, factory farm, bovid. It is constructed of Thai paper of the hunt, splattered and dripped with paint, suggesting violence and bleeding.
In India’s Karni Mata Temple, Baiz learned, tens of thousands of rats are worshipped as deities. Karni Mata, a female Hindu sage, was promised that all her male descendants would be reincarnated as white rats. Visitors remove their shoes and sit among the rats. Baiz’s rat appears to be sniffing the air, its paws delicately held out front in an exploratory position. It gets us thinking: How did we ever come to perceive the rat as a vile creature, and yet keep its relatives – hamsters, gerbils, mice – as adorable pets? Rats are intelligent, and it is their very intelligence that makes them subjects for tests about human behavior. They demonstrate altruism in experiments, freeing fellow rats from confinement and sharing chocolate chips. Rats are us – or maybe we’re not as nice.
Nonhuman Animals: Eat, Test, Love, paintings by Hetty Baiz, is on view at the Bernstein Gallery Sept. 16 through Oct. 18, with a Peter Singer panel Oct. 8, 4:30-6 p.m. and reception at 6 p.m.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.