Natural selections

By GREG COOK  |  August 14, 2007

Okie’s paintings differ notably from the single painting on exhibit by Little Joe — an open composition of violet and turquoise dots. Moores explains that Joe, who escaped twice in 2003, “doesn’t enjoy it as much as Okie does. Joe will just touch the paint with one finger, and just touch it, touch it, touch it. Then he usually immediately goes and washes his hands.”

In the ’80s, Koko and Michael, gorillas at the Gorilla Foundation in California who were taught to communicate with people via American Sign Language, painted what at first appear to be simple abstractions. But their keepers write that an orange-and-green blob filling the left side of an otherwise empty paper is Michael’s rendering of a bell pepper. And his swirling black-and-white composition was intended as a portrait of a black-and-white dog running.

The images aren’t obvious, but one could argue that they’re no more obscure than the subjects of a child’s drawing. Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, however, remains dubious in his 2001 book The Ape and the Sushi Master: “I’ve never been able to recognize the purported images in their paintings.” He argues that ape artists are driven by the physical act of artmaking but could care less about the final object. And he believes that this delight in the process, which was also the hallmark of mid-20th-century modern art, “provides a glimpse into the wellspring of the universal human artistic impulse.”

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