The human-animal bond goes so far back, we’re guessing it existed even before cavemen figured out how to make fire. And what goes back just as far is the artist depicting this human-animal bond on a cave wall, stone, paper and eventually canvas.
The Carnegie Center for Art and History will explore the relationship between humans and domesticated animals in its latest exhibition, “Biophilia Life; or, My Best Friend Has Four Legs and a Tail,” which opens Friday, Dec. 14. It’ll feature 25 pieces by eight local and national artists.
Louisville artists Rachael Banks, Gaela Erwin, Carlos Gamez de Francisco and Douglas Miller have work in the show, along with Malcolm Bucknall (Austin, Texas), Timothy Callaghan (Cleveland), Sonya Yong James (Atlanta) and William Wegman (New York City).
Carnegie Center curator Daniel Pfalzgraf — whose family has two dogs, a cat and a leopard gecko — tells Insider the exhibit’s long name is aimed at two different audiences.
The first part references author Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis in which he describes an “urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” And the second part gets at the fun, approachable nature of the exhibit.
The Carnegie Center serves a broad audience, after all, so the title appeals to both art scholars and art novices.
“I wanted people to know that this is a show for everyone,” explains Pfalzgraf. “‘Biophilia Life’ is signal to visitors with a more scholarly background that there is something serious here for their consideration. ‘My Best Friend Has Four Legs and a Tail’ signals to those who may not be regular museum visitors that we are open and welcoming to them and want to share this experience with them.”
We asked Pfalzgraf a few more questions about the show, and he elaborated in true curator fashion. We did have to edit his responses for length.
Insider Louisville: How did you come up with the idea for this exhibit, and how long did it take you to pull together?
Daniel Pfalzgraf: One of my main goals as a professional has always been to do whatever I can to help expand understanding and appreciation of contemporary art for more people. As a curator, I do that by exhibiting artwork, ideas and themes I find interesting. I feel if I find something interesting, then there is a good chance many other people will, too.
All that brings us to this exhibition, which could probably be subtitled “Come for the puppies, stay for the brushstrokes.”
Most exhibitions I curate take one or two years to put together. I remember seeing one of the pieces in the exhibition, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Sonya Yong James, in a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Georgia in the summer of 2017, and it seems that really kicked off me contacting artists in the fall of that year.
IL: How did you go about finding artists for the show?
DP: Pets and animals are common areas of interest for many people. Artists are people just like anyone else, so it was pretty easy to find work that included those subjects. What was interesting is when those connections are so ingrained, the artists don’t even recognize it.
I remember seeing an Instagram story Rachael Banks shared sometime after we had gone through her work for this show, and she commented something to the effect of, “I never even realized I photographed so many pets, but there you go.”
I love how her work shares all these deeply personal relationships, and for her, it was so seamless and flowing. It wasn’t even something where she saw any kind of separation between “them” and “us.” That is a very natural, subconscious experience I think most people share with Rachael.
So finding artists who fit the theme wasn’t so difficult, but finding a good balance of artists took more planning. I wanted a good combination of local and national artists, male and female, a mix of media, etc.
IL: What are some of the pieces that depict the strong human bond we have with animals?
DP: As mentioned earlier, Rachael Banks’ photos share some very deep, personal relationships. She has done a series called “Between Home and Here” that explores her relationships with family members who live in Louisville and how their relationships change when she has come and gone between living here and away from home.
I really like one of the photos titled “Bo Jackson,” which is a portrait of her brother holding a rabbit. The off-center placement of the subjects in the photo seem to show a kind of uneasy balance.
Gaela Erwin’s work also shows a lot of expression of various levels of relationships.
Her large pastel on paper titled “Self-Portrait on Slipper with Lacey J.” shows her dressed very formally sitting atop a horse with her little hairless Chinese crested dog.
This single vignette brings up so many different ways we have bonded with our animals.
The William Wegman photos derive a lot of impact when you know his background and how intimately he has lived and worked with his famous Weimaraners over the years. Or Douglas Miller’s beautifully drawn portraits of his dogs. Or the high pedestals we place our animals on that are depicted in Malcolm Bucknall’s “Lucky Dog” painting.
IL: Are you a believer of the biophilia hypothesis, and do you think it’s in our nature to connect with animals?
DP: As best as my admittedly limited, non-scientific background understanding of the hypothesis goes, I would say yes. I believe life attracts life, and it is in our nature to connect and understand life and systems beyond ourselves to fully explore our history and place within the universe.
Generally speaking, humans are inquisitive, social creatures who want to belong to greater collectives. I also think using animals to tell stories helps us understand ourselves better, while removing some level of bias. Aesop using animal characters to teach children life lessons is a prime example.
One thing I would like to admit, however, is that the biophilia hypothesis is actually more based on our connection with wildlife. However, seeing how we have become more and more alienated from these experiences in contemporary life, I feel our relationships with our pets have become a kind of extension to our connection to the wild world from which they are derived from.
“Biophilia Life” opens Friday, Dec, 14, with an artists’ reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through Feb. 9. Carnegie Center for Art & History is located at 201 E. Spring St. in New Albany.