Animal rights through veganism — and its connection to Judaism — is pondered in a new exhibit at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford: “Through Compassionate Eyes: Artists Call for Animal Rights.”
One painting depicts the electrocution of an elephant. Other artworks show an emaciated trapped pig, a piece of meat with eyes.
“It is our hope that this exhibit begins a dialogue and urges the viewer into deeper levels of social thought and action, say the shows curators, Julie Seidman, Joel Silverstein and Aimee Rubensteen, in a program essay.
“Honoring animal rights and abstaining from their consumption affirms that all creatures are worthy of respect. The parallel concept in Jewish thought is called Tikkun Olam; a religious mandate to literally repair the world through righteous action.”
Not all of the artists in show are vegan. Not all of them are Jewish, either. But each has his or her own reason for choosing the themes of their artworks. A look at a few of them:
‘The Death of Topsy’
Joel Silverstein depicts circus elephant Topsy, who was electrocuted in 1903 by Luna Park because she was considered unruly. The execution was filmed by Thomas Edison’s movie company. Silverstein’s acrylic on canvas depicts Topsy, Luna Park and Edison.
“Topsy typified the beginning of the American experience, that that was used as an entertainment piece. … To have filmed it, to our eyes, it seems very barbaric, but to their eyes, they were thinking ‘isn’t that really cool?’ There was a public outcry but they did it anyway,“ says Silverstein, of Mahwah, N.J.
“There is stuff going on in politics and entertainment today, nasty, horrible things that are a public spectacle. Everyone oohs and aahs but nothing changes.”
Brittney West’s “The Realization” seems sillier than “Topsy.” The painting-collage depicts a fork spearing a cartoonish piece of meat with googly eyes. But the background is serious, based on West’s meat-eating epiphany.
“Early in high school, I sat at the table eating steak with my family. I turned to my father when the realization hit and exclaimed, ‘Oh my god! There's a cow rolling around in my mouth!’
“I requested to be a vegetarian, at the mercy of my parent's cooking, but it was not honored,” says West, of Corvallis, Ore.
“Later on … I vowed to never eat or sell animal products. I now make art about our relationship with animals and the disconnect of the consequences of our consumer choices.”
Diana Kurz, who lives in Soho, N.Y., has been a vegetarian since 1967.
“That was before it was stylish. People thought I was strange. Doctors told me how unhealthy it was,” Kurz says. She went vegan 20 years ago after visiting a factory farm.
“I realized I couldn’t eat dairy anymore.”
Her monoprint “Fur Farm” shows a fox trying unsuccessfully to escape from a cage. Kurz works primarily in figurative artworks, and her subjects are usually not so sad, but she feels strongly enough about animals to have created this series. Her concern even figures into the size of her artworks.
“I try to seduce people in. If I make the artworks small you have to stand close to them. It becomes very intimate.”
‘Deconstruction By Dairy’
Corey Rowland’s “Deconstruction by Dairy” is a digital print showing an outline of a cow made from various-sized milk bottles, as arms reach out to grab the bottles.
“I think most people who consume animals would acknowledge that each piece of meat, leather or fur they see is a physical piece of an animal’s body. … I decided to expand this line of thinking in a more abstract way with dairy,” Rowland, of Berkeley, Calif., says.
“Just as each piece of meat is a literal fragment of an animal’s body, every dairy product, in this case a carton of milk, is a fragment of that mother. … The animal agriculture industry has literally and metaphorically broken down innocent, sentient beings into commodities.”
‘We Are Family’
Helen Barker’s black-and-white drawing “We Are Family,” which is part of a meat-package series, re-creates the image of a tray of grocery-store chicken, but fills it with warnings such as “Natural choice? They had no choice.”
“The series attempts to bust the myths and clever marketing lies which surround that industry, while lifting the veil on just who those animals are,” says Barker, of Essex, England.
Barker became a vegan 22 years ago when working at a veterinarian’s office.
“The compassionate and tender treatment of our pets seemed out of kilter with that of the farmed animals, who experience life in exactly the same way, and yearn to live every bit as much, yet are viewed only as commodity.”
‘The Seas Are Rising’
Linnea Ryshke of St. Louis, Mo., created an acrylic and oil on canvas depicting animals, an African American and a Native American caught in the maelstrom of a turbulent ocean. Ryshke says the imagery symbolizes “the collective power of resistance across species.”
She created it during the Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter movements. She used water to symbolize constant need for motion and because bodies are made up mostly of water.
“As is obvious with stories of animal and human resistance, those who are oppressed are actively and loudly speaking, displaying their desire for freedom and personhood. We are just not listening. I hope to echo and augment their voices.”
Jane Lewis’ oil-on-canvas, “Greyhound,” shows a dog muzzled and running, hanging from a rope.
Lewis, of Yorkshire, England, says racing dogs “are regarded as disposable running machines in an industry that consistently puts profits before animal welfare.”
She also cited a Bulgarian ritual of suspending dogs on ropes to prevent rabies.
“This image represents two kinds of human abuse of dogs in ritual and entertainment. Lewis “became a vegan overnight” by seeing the documentary “Earthlings.”
“At first I only changed my eating habits, but veganism is a process where I came to realize that almost every aspect of human activity revolves around the exploitation of other animals.”
Other artists in the show are Sigal Ben-David, Siona Benjamin, Filipe Cortez, Alan Falk, Dorit Jordan Dotan, Katarzyna Kozera, Boris Lyubner, Philip McCulloch-Downs, Archie Rand, Jacob Silverstein, Yona Verwer, Nancy Wyllie and Seidman.
THROUGH COMPASSIONATE EYES: ARTISTS CALL FOR ANIMAL RIGHTS is at Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave. in Hartford, until Nov. 2. charteroakcenter.org.