Art by Animals
Are they artistic works or meaningless scrawls?
Grant Museum of Zoology
1 February to 13 April 2012

Art by Animals exhibits works of art from several species of animals, including paintings by elephants and apes, starts this week at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology in collaboration with artist Mick Tuck, a graduate from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art.  

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Since the mid-50s zoos have used art and painting as a leisure activity for the animals, also using the activities to raise funds for conservation or the zoo by selling the works.

While many species in captivity have interacted with paint, the exhibition aims to ask visitors the question of whether animals can be creative and make art, and why some animal creations are considered valuable and creative, while others are dismissed as meaningless. Jack Ashby, Museum Manager, asks the big question  

"Is this is actually art? While individual elephants are trained to always paint the same thing, art produced by apes is a lot more creative and is undistinguishable from abstract art by humans that use similar techniques"

Featuring art by elephants, orang-utans, gorillas and chimps, exhibition co-curators Will and Mike Tuck have gathered paintings from locations as varied as Samutprakarn Zoo, Thailand (elephants); Erie Zoo, Pennsylvania, USA (gorilla, orang-utan); Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri, USA (chimp); and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado, USA (orang-utan). The exhibition also includes specifically commissioned works from Erie Zoo.

Images of monkeys painting date back at least to the 17th century in European art and possibly earlier but it wasn't until the 1950s that the actual animal paintings became a serious subject. This rise in popularity tied in with the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement in art which started to look closely at the act of mark making itself, and what it reveals about the artist’s subconscious. Within this newly emerging context the art of animals, particularly primates took on a radically different meaning.

Animal art was first popularised by Granada TV’s Zoo Time, which started in 1956. The programme, which was presented by zoologist and artist Desmond Morris, included chimps painting live. One regular was the individual “Congo”, who went on have his own exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the late 50s, the catalogue for which is included in the exhibition.  

Placing work by animals alongside specimens and historical documentation Art by Animals explore why some animal creations are considered valuable and creative, while others are dismissed as meaningless.

"Art by Animals was the first exhibition to feature multiple species' paintings and to attempt to take a broad view of the phenomenon". 

Mike Tuck, Art by Animals co-curator 

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