Frog lips, cockroach war paint & the art of Catherine Chalmers 

By Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin
American-Statesman Arts Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2001

 
 


`I'm not hurting roaches," says artist Catherine Chalmers via telephone from her parents' winter home in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she's taking a brief ski vacation before heading to Austin this week. "I put all of my energy into raising animals -- not hurting them. My job is about 90 percent zookeeping and 10 percent photography. There's really no argument for people to say that I'm doing these animals any harm. " 

You would think Chalmers, a 43-year-old New York-based photographer, is in an enviable position right now, but she's not. Not entirely, that is.  Last year, Aperture magazine published a monograph based on her "Food Chain" series of large (5 feet by 3 1/2 feet) arresting, graphic, beautiful photographs that portray animals --
tree frogs, praying mantises, tarantulas, among others that she raises in her Soho studio -- in various stages of the food chain: eating, being eaten, killing, being killed, sex. Predator and prey, life and death. The book has been doing very well. 

In recent months, her "Food Chain" series has been exhibited at the Corcoran
Museum in Washington, D.C., PS1 in New York and many other galleries in this country and in Europe. Here in Austin, her "Food Chain" photos are on view in "Two Photographers: Catherine Chalmers and Rob Ziebell" at D. Berman Gallery. 
Then last month, Art News made her and her latest project -- color photographs of roaches painted green with red florets crawling on a canopy of flowers -- the subject of its cover story. Usually that sets a buzz going about an artist's work. But then Chalmers ran into an Art News editor on the street in her neighborhood who told her that the publication had received letters from readers angry at what they perceived to be animal cruelty; some canceled their subscriptions.  
Such a response baffles Chalmers. "There is only empathy for animals on my part," she says. "You don't do what I do if you don't like them." 
Chalmers' larger-than-bug-life subjects photographed against starkly neutral backgrounds are specifically meant to pique our empathy. "I wanted the backgrounds to be neutral, nothing sentimental or natural so you could just
look at these animals afresh," she says. An interesting thing happens to the
viewer: When insects and animals are more our size -- when we can see their
faces -- they suddenly become objects of our empathy, not out hatred. 
"I'm trying to bring you into their world," says Chalmers. "I like the dichotomy
between how important insects are to the health of the planet and how much we hate them. We can have this strange kind of sympathy with other living things, yet we're the most violent species on the planet."  

Reared in Northern California, Chalmers did her undergraduate work at Stanford University, where she studied engineering and design. Then she headed to London and studied painting at the Royal College of Art. She never took a photography class. "I have no background in what I'm doing," she says. She simply picked up a friend's camera one day and took a picture of a fly. 

"I'll never enter the human world," she says. "I'm trying to deal with one
species interacting with another -- bringing out the other species' point of view.
It's essential -- it's one of the functions of art."  

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