Blood Memory is SVA alum George Boorujy’s second solo show at P.P.O.W Gallery. Boorujy presents twelve recent drawings of animals, most of which are much larger than life-size. “These impeccably and immaculately painted portraits awaken our curiosities about each animal’s reality and emotional mapping.” True. But they awaken curiosities beyond that, too.
For most Americans, animals are here for entertainment. We can shoot them for sport, bet on them in competitions, and eat them at parties. If one dies, there are plenty more to replace it, and therefore, more opportunities for fun. If that’s crass, consider what we saw in the popular media last week:
Donald Trump’s sons on “safari” boastfully posed with the corpses of animals they killed just for fun: an elephant, leopard, crocodile, kudu, civet cat and waterbuck. If only animals could shoot back.
HBO canceled production of Luck after a third horse died, even though HBO maintained standards “higher in fact than any protocols existing in horseracing anywhere with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures.” However, the truth will be lost in controversy.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the Northern Arapaho Tribe the right to kill two bald eagles per year for religious ceremonies, following the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which allows selective permits to kill these animals. Thus, one could argue that religious ritual is more important than protecting eagles. (Oddly enough, however, the Supreme Court has ruled against religious ritual in Employment Division v. Smith, where the ritual of ingesting peyote was not protected from prohibitions against controlled substances. Comparing these cases might be like comparing apples to oranges, but we still find a grim result: drug prevention is more compelling than animals’ lives.)
Blood Memory does not explicitly convey the contestability of an animal’s well-being. Boorujy’s animals are isolated, so human threats seem otherworldly. These animals appear mostly alone, and they appear without a context. What’s an animal without its ecosystem? What’s an ecosystem without its animals? This isolation has several consequences. First, it makes some of the animals look like taxidermy trophies. In Initiate, 2011, the head of a ram seems disembodied, hanging from the top edge of the drawing. Second, it neglects the reality of animals as intrinsically social: living in groups, communicating, and managing the next generation. One sobering exception is a pair of deer in Florida II (Hurricane Andrew), 2010. Given the title, the deer seem like the survivors of armageddon, rather than specimens stripped of their environments.
Despite their containment in a vacuum, the animals in Blood Memory invite empathy. Half of them gaze directly at viewers, often from up close, pressing viewers in an unusual tête-à-tête. One could also argue that their surrounding, unnatural white space actually lifts them from the discourse of “field study” and into theoretical space. That is, each animal, stripped of its environment, becomes a population sample, a representative, an “everyanimal.” Think of Karel Funk’s paintings of young people in hoods – they are less portraits and more demographic icons. Moreover, many viewers will likely have a priori appreciation of the fragility of animal preservation and wildlife management. Boorujy may not feel the need to remind us in these pictures, because the reality is automatically connoted in the image. And maybe, Boorujy is inviting us to fill in the environments ourselves, either with what we want to see or what we expect to see.
Boorujy’s technical skill is exceptional. He relentlessly, slavishly renders fur and feathers, taking no shortcuts. He generates atmosphere and mass by manipulating color and contrast. Through his technique, the body of work doesn’t sink in to visually dead photorealism. It feels sculptural and solid. In fact, Boorujy builds clay sculptures of the animals, instead of finding photos, to study various postures and lighting. (After college, he even worked in Northern California for a short time as a potter.) Boorujy’s expertise is rare in Chelsea’s art world, and parallels the harsh finitude of the species he renders. As any artist knows, drawing with ink leaves no room for error, and the expanses of unfettered white space testify to the reverential caution Boorujy practices.
In spite of the subjects, two- and four-legged, my favorite is And Then We Heard the Voice, 2012, a hill made of weathered boulders and scored by yellow stripes. The stripes might correspond to the golden pollen seen in the other drawings, though I prefer the mystery of what seems like a pagan intervention on an accidental Tower of Babel.