Tom Van Herrewege: Anthro Zoology at Leicester Contemporary
From his earliest days the visual artist Tom Van Herrewege has felt compelled to commit to paper animals that have captured his imagination. The artist’s current exhibition at Leicester Contemporary, Anthro Zoology, reveals the extent to which his practice continues to literally and metaphorically draw on his awe of the animal kingdom.
For Van Herrewege, the last few years have seen him seek to “raise awareness of the extinction crisis and the need to act on this”. He talks of aiming to pose questions for the viewing public as to why we, as humans, have tended to look at the animal kingdom in a particular way and the impact this has had on the natural world. Anthro Zoology, the title chosen by the artist, is actually the interdisciplinary study of the interaction between humans and other animals.
Throughout this exhibition one finds him deploying monochrome in his depiction of endangered species, be they mighty mammals from the oceans’ depths, or land-bound rhinoceros. Whilst acknowledging the abundance of colour found in the natural world, Van Herrewege has found the application of such colour to be somewhat distracting. Instead, he believes his use of monochrome allows him to communicate his ideas more directly.
The centrepiece and main focal point of the show is undoubtedly the monumental drawing of an especially regal-looking gorilla, surveying his domain from a rock in a habitat teeming with plants, back-lit by the indication of a glowing sun. Closer inspection reveals the inclusion of two skeletons rendered in the centre, one human, the other a gorilla emerging from the undergrowth. It’s a clarion call to take action in order to prevent these magnificent animals – demonised by Hollywood as woman-kidnapping “monsters” – from seeing their habitats and communities destroyed. The artist made this impressive, large work in front of the visiting public in the first week of the exhibition, leading to numerous interesting conversations. Apparently, the public “picked up well on both the humour and the darker content”.
On another wall one finds four small, rectangular seascape works, arranged alternately with darker and lighter sky. Each features a shark leaping out of the sea. In the piece furthest to the left, Van Herrewege has apparently superimposed a number of images on top of the much-feared animal and the sea from which it emerges. They half resemble apparitional forms: a fishing trawler with nets extended, a young girl frolicking in an inflatable ring and, menacingly, the outline of a second huge shark with jaws bared. Simultaneously, the artist alludes to both the fear sharks trigger and overfishing that threatens 24 of the 31 species’ very existence.
The interior of Leicester Contemporary, an historic former auction mart building, provides an almost ecclesiastical atmosphere in which to contemplate the emotive imagery and ideas being channelled by Tom Van Herrewege. For all the intensity of the messages conveyed, the artist at times creates more lighthearted content in juxtaposition with the serious. In one work Mickey Mouse enthusiastically plays the bottom row of a rhino’s teeth as if it were a piano. Van Herrewege holds the view that too much shocking imagery will only “naturally repulse the viewer and they will switch off to its message”. Apart from Disney cartoons comforting the viewer, they are also, from another perspective, in the mind of the artist, “loaded with political ideas that are so relevant to the extinction crisis and to the way we understand and treat animals”.
The rich diversity of creatures depicted here attests to the journeys Van Herrewege has made around the world to observe them in their natural habitats. He has been artist in residence at galleries in Australia and South Africa, venturing as well to Madagascar in 2014. In June of next year he plans to be artist in residence in Hokkaido, Japan, where he intends to study whales, black bears and orca. The enduring passion that Tom Van Herrewege feels for the animal kingdom as a subject, together with his determination to highlight humanity’s impact on the natural world, are deeply etched into this exhibition.
Photos: Tom Van Herrewege and David Wilson Clarke
Tom Van Herrewege: Anthro Zoology is at Leicester Contemporary from 18th August until 11th September 2021. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.