There is something about the scene of animals gathered in a manger to greet a newborn that offers a bit of relief to the anxieties of our human world. “Animals are so pure of heart,” says Chroma Projects director Deborah McLeod. “They have no political agenda. And in the manger scenes, the clusters of animals are neutral. They’re gathering around innocence.”
The image of this tranquil setting compelled her to invite a number of artists who work with animals as their subject matter to show their work at Chroma Projects’ downtown location this month. The exhibition consists of paintings and sculptural installations by Virginia Van Horn, Russ Warren, Aggie Zed, Pam Black and Lester Van Winkle. Three of these artists in particular share a fascination with horses that has informed their lives and their work for years.
Virginia Van Horn’s large-scale horse sculpture, “If Wishes Were Horses,” rests on bales of hay and a metal bed and immediately draws the eye upon entering. Van Horn, an artist based in Norfolk, writes in an e-mail: “My fascination with horses dates back to my childhood as a champion rider and it continues to be the central image in my work.” Her two other pieces in the exhibition consist of wire sculptural interpretations of the equine form, including one with two heads, each nestled in a black box that resembles a stable. “The juxtaposition of animals with man-made artifacts,” she writes, “emphasizes their shared traits with humanity, as if we all live in a shared fairy tale.”
Warren, from Charlottesville, raised horses for 30 years and is well-acquainted with their form and personality. He was most recently inspired by an exhibition of Picasso’s sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art. When he returned, he began sculpting the horse and crane that appear in “Manger Scene.”
His works consist of wood covered in chicken wire, which he then overlays and shapes with plaster. He often combines found objects with his sculptures that also reflect his agricultural environment, such as the pitchfork that represents the horse’s tail. His color selections, says Warren, “are influenced a lot by Mexican muralists, specifically Tamayo and Picasso’s Cubist phase.” At the foot of his two sculptures, reclining on a makeshift manger, is a two-dimensional dog named “Un chien” (French for “The dog”), whose material base is cement Warren made from his farm’s gravel dust.
Zed’s anthropomorphic figures are what she calls “intimate-scaled,” and are sculpted by hand. Her origins as a sculptor began with a small act of rebellion in college. After being criticized for painting horses, she built a chess set by hand in order to have an excuse to make horses (in the form of the knight pieces). Little did she know she would stumble on the livelihood that would allow her to paint.
As she branched into sculpting, Zed worked with ceramic at first. But soon the problem of chipped ears and broken legs presented itself when she began shipping. Her solution? To integrate metal components into her work. She calls these fantastical pieces “scrap floats,” as she imagines them “as parade floats at a time in the future when technology has gone off the limb and we’re left with various parts we don’t use anymore.”
One such piece is a mechanical rabbit with wings. Another is a horse with metal ears and wheels for hooves. “Almost all my work,” she says, “rather than meaning something, is a visual exploration. I get it to a point where it doesn’t look mechanically awkward and it has an emotive quality.”
While the manger scene tells the story of animals gathering around a newborn human, Chroma offers the opportunity for humans to gather around these representations of animals and consider their interior lives, their sentience or what we might even call their humanity.