WALNUT CREEK -- The Bedford Gallery's current exhibit, "Peaceable Kingdom: Animals Real and Imagined," may have "peace" in the title, but the 109 works on display in the downtown gallery through May 19 are anything but peaceful.
Instead, they're a riotous menagerie of creative responses to animals and man's relationship to them. Like a successful archeological dig, delving into the exhibit's depths brings forth cultural gems and invokes ancient rituals. Add to the mix modern-day science and sensitivity to precious and predatory species, and a visitor will marvel equally at the miracle of survival and range of artistic expression.
Jurors Stephanie Cannizo, assistant curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, and Cathy Kimball, executive director and chief curator of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, selected the 59 artists whose work encompasses painting sculpture, photography and video.
Animals have been a critical part of the visual arts ever since the first cave person scratched into a rock the pictorial story of the day's hunt. Human-generated myths and metaphors have meant a lamb can be a child of God, or that a lion can be King of the Jungle. We -- and artists, imaginatively -- anthropomorphize throughout the animal kingdom, from bugs to elephants.
Oakland's Crystal Morey is a ceramist and inclined toward the psychology of her sculptures as much as their structure. "Predator and Prey" embeds cross-legged human bodies in totem-pole-like animal torsos.
"When we think about predator and prey, we think about the animal kingdom and remove ourselves from that," she explained. "I wanted to bring us back into that. We're the top of the food chain; there isn't anything that's going to cause our demise except ourselves."
Lisa Reinertson of Benicia,created "Neptune's Daughter" in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. The life-size bronze sculpture is a stunning piece -- a young girl, her dress and hair "blown" by the wind, cradles an oil-drenched pelican.
"I'm aware we're living in a time and culture where we lack interaction with animals," Reinertson says. "As a member of different environmental organizations, my awareness is a sad, silent cry of grief, but I'm trying not to be quiet with my work."
Indeed, the message in many of the pieces is active, advocating for deeper, provocative questioning.
"Who is hunting whom?" San Jose artist Natalya Burd asks, with her "Hunting Season." A forest towers above a scattered line of hunters and dogs, suggesting violence, beauty, sport and exploit.
"The hunting dog is like a bridge," she says, leaving the viewer to interpret her meaning. "Why do I make art when I never have answers? Maybe we create art to make more questions."
But other artists in the show appear to follow different drummers. Joe Bologna, an Alamo sculptor whose recycled steel "4-Pack" delights with its zig-zaggy-toothed, curly-tailed quartet of canines, sees humor in metal.
"World View," Sas Colby's large, mixed media work resembling a super-sized page from an artist's sketchbook, features a bunny she's been drawing for 13 years.
"When my husband was dying, it was something to focus on," she says, introducing the idea of animals as comfort, protection, escape.
Over time, her rabbit has morphed to become an alter ego: a seer of sadness, disruption, Ponzi schemes, Buddhism, terrorists and women helping each other through difficult times.
It's impossible to capture the show's range entirely (and that may be the curator's underlying purpose). "Peaceable Kingdom" at times exceeds its grasp, leaving a stronger sense of how human beings have impacted the life of animals than the reverse. For that, one might have to tour the exhibit with gallery docents, who meet and gathering back stories from the artists, before the opening.