What’s another word for “fierce?”

Photography from the PAM collection and Walton Ford’s wolf paintings

“Fierce” may describe our dedication to animals as beloved pets, and to some extent, our desire to keep working animals healthy and dependable. We wouldn’t necessarily apply the adjective to our dependence on them as food nor our appreciation of their inherent aesthetic value. All of these elements are represented within the photography exhibit, “Fierce” at Portland Art Museum. But what is largely missing is a representation of the what makes these animals ferocious. Actually “fierce.”

I do not recall seeing any particularly fierce animals in this grouping from the museum’s archives. Cats, donkeys, goats, birds, yes; maybe a couple of pissed-off dachshunds, but no lions, tigers or alligators. The reason for this might very well be because humans don’t really have a relationship with the latter other than an adversarial one.

I have to backtrack a little on that assertion. Not the adversarial part, but the representation of predators. There are two bobcats: one limp and being held up by the scruff for the camera (Mark Barnes, “Devery Freeman, Rogue River, Oregon) and a taxidermied specimen in a display cabinet (more on this later). These animals are just prey.

I suppose if one is unaccustomed to seeing dead animals on a semi-regular basis, the dead, scrawny cat in Barnes’ photo might draw the eye to it, much the way the gaze of the young boy in Carol Yarrow’s “Boy and Bird” contemplates the dead animal he holds in front of his face. After all, death allows a comfortable distance from which to contemplate such beings.

Mark Barnes, “Devery Freeman, Rogue River, Oregon"/Portland Art Museum

Mark Barnes, “Devery Freeman, Rogue River, Oregon”/Portland Art Museum

But the man one assumes is Barnes’ Devery Freeman is not looking at the bobcat. No doubt he has seen his share of dead things. No, his eyes are fixed on the camera and photographer. His expression suggests a pride in the kill. If one finds this off-putting, the look on the lad’s face in Yarrow’s photo will be equally disturbing. He holds the bird upside down and close to his face. He spreads a wing out, no doubt to find the secret of how these appendages manage to keep the bird otherwise aloft. Yet there is also a very primal look about the lad, perhaps a bit of a mouth breather as well, and therefore less innocent, as if he killed the bird to satisfy his curiosity.

I could be making more of the boy than is there, but it serves to reinforce my notion that the people in these photos (and all of the photos in which people are present in the exhibition) seem ever more interesting than the animals.

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Some might disagree —for instance, the high school girls who came through the gallery at the same time I was there. “So cute!” one exclaimed, about which photograph, I don’t know and, to be frank, don’t really care. While I am guilty of posting pictures of our grandkids on facebook, I have resisted videotaping the way our cat bounces off of the walls one minute and lays down to snuggle with our old dog the next.

The keeping and care of animals brings corresponding “meaning” to our lives: joy, companionship, comfort and patience among them, all positive and reinforcing, and perhaps made more special because the commitment to them neither comes with marriage nor springs from our loins; it also begets advocacy and anthropomorphism. We identify, for are we not animals ourselves? I would say our old dog smiles, yet I cannot allow this determination to be extended much further into the animal kingdom without it influencing my choice of protein sources. And while some might find the politic of this unsettling, I reinforce my decision by the ingredients found in and left out of the wet and dry foods we feed our pets. We simultaneously associate and disassociate; we tell ourselves that we are a different kind of animal.

Because I grew up with more of a farmer’s ethos regarding animals, I am spared some of this internal conflict. Respect (and maybe, but not necessarily, love) came from the job or purpose the animal was given. A hint of this utilitarian attitude on a larger, historical scale, might come with the Adelphoi Zangaki Studio photos of Egypt, circa 1870. The donkeys are filling a purpose as pack animals. Even the baboon in one of the photos is dressed to entertain, presumably for coinage from a gathered crowd.

Fast forward to 2009 and Natan Dvir’s “Jedah Holding a Chick.” The relationship has shifted. A decidedly urban-looking young man strikes a contemplative pose as he looks at the bird in his left hand. Yet the unlit cigarette in his right hand suggests that in his mind he has already moved on to other things. More examples of a relationship with animals for one’s livelihood—indeed, for the development of a civilization beyond one of hunters and gatherers—are sorely missing from this exhibit, yet their absence may point to another cultural phenomenon that runs alongside the development of the camera, and that is the gradual move to a post-agricultural world.

Gay Block, "Kathy Miller" and "Kathy Miller Meyer"/Portland Art Museum

Gay Block, “Kathy Miller” and “Kathy Miller Meyer”/Portland Art Museum

We do see some animals in their natural habitat, but most others are of the domesticated varieties (all begging the question, “what is a natural habitat?”), necessitating at the very least an implied presence of humans. While the pets may add something to Yousef Karsh’s portrait of Robert Frost or Robert Miller’s Pietro Belluschi, we are more interested in the celebrities. Nor are these pets as remarkable as the taxidermied menagerie in Carl Corey’s “Kathy and Bernie, Moccasin Bar, Hayward, Wisconsin.” And here we are forced to consider the people: What motivates Kathy and Bernie to create these display cabinets? Is that a smile on Bernie’s face, and if so, what kind of smile? A smirk? And why does Kathy have a “deer in the headlights” look about her? Gay Block’s two photos of Kathy Miller contain no actual animals, dead or alive; instead, the rooms are decorated with stuffed toys. And the facial expressions of Miller? Is that ennui?

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We have a local, publicly-supported radio station, KMUZ, in our area. I listen to it as I drive north, usually losing it by Brooks. Last week it held out until Woodburn. I mention this only because the program I was listening to, Ken ‘til Ten, was highlighting songs about dogs, and in that I knew I was going to shortly see a photo exhibit that was sure to have a lot of pictures of dogs, I sought to be inspired, and maybe even find a theme should I decide to write a review. None was forthcoming.

Yet my association synapses must have still been engaged as I made my way through the museum, for as I crossed through the basement corridor, I had to stop. Walton Ford’s painting, “Catena,” would let me go no farther.

Five wolves form a chain (catena is latin for chain, an association driven home by a section of the Roman Aqueduct in the background of this painting) with the mouth of each wolf holding onto the tail of the one ahead. The front wolf has descended into a body of water, and the thought is that the others will follow suit, guided by the first yet in the spirit of cooperation, to the other shore. Except the first wolf’s head remains below the surface of the water. Safety in numbers or success in a strategy is not guaranteed.

Walton Ford, "Geipner"/Portland Art Museum

Walton Ford, “Geipner”/Portland Art Museum

There is another painting by Ford, “Gleipnur” on the fourth floor. It depicts a Norse myth in which Gleipnur, a magical ribbon of incredible strength, is made by dwarves to bind the giant wolf, Fenrir. In the painting, a hand wraps this ribbon around the back right leg of the animal. Another hand, that of Týr, the god of war, is in the open mouth of the wolf, and as soon as the wolf realizes it is inescapably bound, that hand will be bitten off. The world of the gods will be safe. But only for a while, for, as the story goes, someday Fenrir will break free, eat Odin and bring about an apocalypse. Good news, though: There is a subsequent renewal. It should also be noted that both hands in the painting seem to be those of women.

I have always been a sucker for allegories, and upon seeing this last painting, I left the museum, but not before making sure I took one more look at “Catena.” I suppose I could have gone back to view the “Fierce” exhibit one more time but chose not to as it would have been anticlimactic. Still, one other photo in that exhibit stuck in my mind, and it was Ann Hughes’ “Columbia River Polar Bear.”

There are no actual animals in Hughes’ photo, save the hand of the person holding up the deteriorated top of a styrofoam cooler on which is impressed the logo of the manufacturer, an image of a polar bear. There is a large hole in the foam where the bulk of the bear’s body should be. Not as allegorical as Ford’s paintings, it nevertheless has a message.

Our dominion is fierce.

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