Press Release - October 30, 2007strong>
Review of 'Pachyderm Painters' in Williamsburg
By Teresa Annas
Art made by elephants? It sounds like a gimmick. But the trend in animal-made art is getting some serious study and has a sober mission.
Researchers have determined that elephants are among the few self-aware creatures, along with humans, apes and dolphins, and are even investigating whether elephants and other more intelligent animals might possibly have an aesthetic sense.
Paintings by elephants living in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia went on display earlier this month at Prince George Art & Frame, an otherwise conventional art gallery.
Most of these 25 paintings are abstract and pleasing to look at and don't seem too far off from your average, competent, nonrepresentational paintings. Looking at one, you might feel you are peering across an abyss of incomprehension into the secret soul of a marvelous creature.
The ones of flowers amaze people the most. Though it's not true, I picture a line of elephants in some art factory - one doing the flower buds, the other the stems. In fact, to do these, a single elephant is trained in a series of brushstrokes.
So how can you review such art?
David Ferris, director of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project, said he has met these elephants and watched them paint. An elephant is trained step by step, starting by holding the paintbrush with its trunk. Along the way, the elephant gets rewarded with sugar cane or hay.
Elephants can seem very focused on the process. He has seen an elephant caretaker set out several brushes with different colors and has watched as the creature picked up one brush, painted with it, put it down and grabbed another color.
Ferris documented such behavior in a video sold through the project's Web site, www.elephantart.com, where clips of the elephants in action can be seen.
The famous (and recently defunct) Russian conceptual art duo Komar & Melamid started the project in 1998, the same year they gave a presentation at the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk.
The project began as a slyly humorous conceptual art piece then proved a viable way for these elephants to survive. In Thailand, two-thirds of all elephants (2,300 out of about 3,3000 are domesticated, Ferris said. By the time the logging industry was banned in 1989, many were in dire circumstances. With most of the wilderness destroyed, there was no nature to return to. Art became a pleasant alternative to begging and starving.
The project now works with 23 elephants and checks in on the creatures and their caretakers every year. So far nearly 4,000 unframed paintings priced from $350 to $500 have sold, with funds going back to the elephants.
Since the New York-based project got going, the idea took root throughout Southeast Asia, Ferris said. Now out-of-work elephants in most of Thailand's 100 or so elephant camps and rescue centers feature jumbo artists - and they are coming to a gallery near you.
if you go
"Pachyderm Painters: Paintings by Asian Elephants"
Prince George Art & Frame, 107 Colony Square, Williamsburg
Through Sept. 22; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays;
closed Labor Day
(757) 229-7644; www.elephantart.com
Teresa Annas, (757) 446-2485