Animals Are Looking at You


September 23, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich

From the series "Genetically Altered Mice" by Catherine Chalmers (2000)

From the series “Genetically Altered Mice” by Catherine Chalmers (2000)

On Saturday I went to the opening of a show that’s up at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center until late October: “The Animals Look Back at Us”. The show was curated by Sara Lynn Henry, who’s emerita faculty in the Art History Department at Drew University (where I’m working on my PhD). I learned, at the opening, that the show itself was inspired by the artwork on display at a conference I co-organized at Drew in 2011, “Divinanimality: Creaturely Theology”. Omnipresent at that conference was a gallery of creature-creations from the artist Jan Harrison: animals whose luminous eyes seize hold of the viewer. While at the conference, Henry was taken by this work, and by the figures of the animals who look back at us from contemporary artworks.


Gillian Jagger, “White Cow” (2009)

“The Animals Look Back at Us” explores the animal gaze from numerous angles, through a variety of media (painting, drawing, photography, video, and sculpture). Sixteen different artists have work in the show, including Jan Harrison, and the photographer Catherine Chalmers (whose wrinkled mouse looks out from the image above.) There are mammals and insects in the show, images of living creatures and dead creatures. Eyes are, of course, unique facets of any creature’s biology, and each pair of eyes in the show evokes or provokes something distinct. Gillian Jagger’s pastel “White Cow” (2009) gives us a glimpse into a set of richly contemplative bovine eyes, rimmed with pink skin and set behind a softly smudged and slightly crooked nose. The soft, furred flesh in this image evokes a sense of vulnerability that feeds easily into a ready sense of intimate familiarity. This is rather different, I think, from Lee Deigaard’s “What’s Going to Happen” (2009-2010): an archival print of a raccoon, mounted on plexiglass. Here, the tissue of tapetum lucidum cuts through the darkness of the rest of the image, glowing like orbs of light from a distant location. These are eyes that we humans are, perhaps, less accustomed to gazing into: organs that seem strange. And it’s not immediately clear that the raccoon is looking in our direction, anyhow. There’s a sense of alienation in the image, but also a kind of wonder at the strangeness of it all, the strangeness of eyes. The pieces, Henry writes in the show’s catalogue, are meant to evoke this range and its potential paradoxes. As the animals look out, she writes, they are “fully present in all their life, energy, vulnerability, even ferocity.” What their eye contact might provoke could equally be “a question, a surprise” or “a desire or need for something.”


Lee Deigaard, “What’s Going to Happen?” (2009-2010)

Of course, at the show I couldn’t help thinking about the now iconic (by my assessment, at least) encounter between Jacques Derrida and his cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am. Here, his cat catches him emerging from the bathroom, naked, and leaves him musing on the topic of nudity more generally. Still, there is something stiff and formal about this hypothetical (merely recounted) stare. There was a sense in which this room full of more sensually present creatures (who were, to be sure, still absent in their actuality) seemed to focus my attention much more sharply on the possibility that I’m being watched. There is a weird sense in which this kind of awareness can make you feel a little more alive. This dulled, of course, when I went back out into the street in Williamsburg, where the only distant orbs of light were coming from electronically powered sources. Perhaps there were animals watching me, but they were hiding themselves, and I was forgetting about them. I didn’t even notice when my partner nudged me on the arm, and pointed into the dim window of a Duane Reade that was closed for the night. I couldn’t imagine what the rows and rows of packaged products had to do with the animals I was trying to discuss. Finally, with some concerted effort, I saw it: a Cover Girl ad for Eye Rehab Makeup, featuring Ellen Degeneres and a raccoon. In the ad, the raccoon was indeed looking out, directly at me (in the online version of the ad, they seem to have cut the raccoon’s eyes out). I was meant, I suppose, to be reminded of the dark circles around my own problematic and imperfect eyes? But I wasn’t thinking much about the product itself. Instead, I was remembering that there are animals looking at me, everywhere, if only from a two dimensional image. And I was thinking about how commodifiable the things in our world (animals but even, or especially, gazes) are always becoming.

7 thoughts on “Animals Are Looking at You

  1. As a Drew alum from the Ice Age (1958) who is now an Associate Prof at Humane Society University teaching Animal Studies, I am thrilled to see Drew becoming one of the many colleges and universities exploring the growing field of Animal Studies. This is an exciting show inspired by an artist, Catherine Chalmers, who has long been an active animal advocate. She is featured in my Reaktion Animal volume, Cockroach as well.

  2. Another Drew connection! I was really taken by Chalmers’ portraits of insects… those glossy pages in the Reaktion series are so great for images. I’ve just finished reading the Crocodile book, for a review. I look forward to checking out Cockroach.

  3. I think, when you do check out Cockroach, that you’ll be amazed at the many wonderful images there are of this under-appreciated insect. Do you know anything about the original show at Drew that inspired this one? I’d like to see other departments at the College become more involved in Animal Studies asap!

  4. Jan Harrison says:

    Marion, For the record, my work inspired Sara Lynn Henry to curate the exhibition, “The Animals Look Back at Us.”…….You asked about the original show at Drew that inspired the exhibition. Catherine Keller invited me to have a solo exhibition of my work, having to do with the animal nature and the direct gaze, at Drew in 2011, in conjunction with the Divinanimality Conference. Sara Lynn Henry, who knew about my art prior to the exhibition, saw the show and was inspired by my large pastel painting, “Big Cat – Mountain Lion With Foliage Fur.” She curated “The Animals Look Back at Us” as a result of seeing my paintings from The Corridor Series….(“Big Cat – Mountain Lion With Foliage Fur” is also on the cover of the catalogue for “The Animals Look Back at Us.”)…..You can find out more about my work, which has been involved with the animal nature since 1979, on my website: I am a painter and a sculptor, and I also speak and sing in Animal Tongues. I have been an animal rights advocate since 1980….A pastel painting of mine, of a cat looking at the viewer, will be on the cover of the book which will be published about the Divinanimality Conference at Drew.

  5. Thank you so much for this fulsome response, Jan. I’m particularly struck by the subject of your painting since, while I am drawn to all our misunderstood predatory neighbors, the mountain lion has been for years my totem animal. They are magnificent! I am anxious to see your work, at least in reproduction. I’m also intrigued by the idea of speaking and singing in animal tongues. As a literary animal scholar, my special focus is on works that bring audiences into touch with nonhuman animals and, of course, that includes hearing their voices. The technique involved is what I’ve been calling the metamorphic imagination which is explained fairly fully in a piece I published in the journal Anthrozoos last summer. You’ll get some idea of what I’m trying to emphasize from by NILAS (Nature in Legend and Story) Book Blog:

  6. Jan Harrison says:

    Marion, Thank you for your reply and for your thoughts. I am very interested in finding out more about metamorphic imagination. I will refer to the NILAS (Nature in Legend and Story) Book Blog……There is much about my life and work on my website, including images of both early and recent work, and also essays written about my work. But, it is best to see my work in the real, because even the best photographs don’t show the subtleties. (There is also much information on Facebook, and I’ll also send you a message there.) I hope you saw the exhibition, “The Animals Look Back at Us,” and look forward to future conversations.

  7. Jan Harrison says:

    In addition to the comment I posted earlier, I have received emails inquiring about the Divinanimality Conference at Drew, and my show in conjunction with the conference, and how that inspired the exhibition, THE ANIMALS LOOK BACK AT US, which is currently at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center in Brooklyn,NY……..Attached is a 2011 essay written as a result of the conference, (with images of my art, and video of Animal Tongues,) by Jay McDaniel, on his blog:

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