Natural selections

By GREG COOK  |  August 14, 2007

Back in the early ’80s, David Gucwa noticed that an elephant he cared for at a zoo in Syracuse was using pebbles to scratch designs into the floor of her cage when alone at night. It turned out that captive elephants commonly use sticks or stones to doodle. He helped her switch to pencil on paper and sent the drawings — simple abstract scribbles — out to various art and animal experts for comment. In his 1985 book To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation of the Art of Elephants, he reports mailing a package to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. The artist’s painter wife, Elaine, wrote back: “When Mr. de Kooning and I received your package, before we read your letter, we looked at the drawings and were very impressed by them. We felt they had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality. Needless to say, we were dumfounded when we read that they were made by an elephant. Mr. de Kooning said, ‘That’s a damned talented elephant.’ ”

But Gucwa’s elephant is no artistic competition for the painter elephants whose work is sold in a project that conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid have organized to raise funds to care for domesticated and wild elephants — while also raising questions about what it means to be an artist. (Video documenting the elephant artists was exhibited at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln last fall.) Elephants’ trunks seem especially suited to making the flowing arrangements of lines that recall de Kooning’s late lyrical, open abstractions.

Some of the Komar/Melamid elephants have been trained to paint flowers in the loose style of traditional Chinese paintings. It may just be that the flower-painting elephants have learned to mimic a pattern — a feat in itself, but distinct from the art of depiction. What is the animal artists’ intent? Are they simply exercising fine motor skills? Or is it an effort at original communication, a coded message from the animal world?

Okie’s art career began as a lark, something to keep him stimulated. And it is part of routine training to encourage the gorillas to be amenable to zoo veterinarians peering into their mouths or listening to their heartbeats so they can perform simple examinations without tranquilizing them. But Moores says a primary benefit of the gorilla art is that it generates interest in the zoo and conservation of the endangered Western lowland gorillas of central Africa. It also helps raise money for the zoo — at a June benefit, one of Okie’s paintings was auctioned for $10,000.

I examine some of Okie’s framed paintings in the Rainforest building. In one, red smears thrust out from the center, like an explosion. Fingerprints are speckled around the edge. Another is spare, just brown smudged around the center. One painting features a red zigzag knuckle smear accented by fingerprints. The best have hints of Philip Guston’s Abstract Expressionist paintings, but some are awkward unfocused messy flops.

“I don’t know if Okie is painting thinking, ‘This is gorgeous,’ ” says Moores. “He had to figure out what I wanted from him. Again, something new, something different for him to do. Sometimes I just put the paint in the den with him and then I’ll leave him alone and he can do what he wants. I think it’s much more natural. He does just smear it around. He’ll smear it on the walls. He’s just kind of a messy gorilla.”

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