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Call of the Wild

VMFA's new exhibit examines our fascination with animals.

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Philip Reinagle painted the well-loved "Portrait of an Extraordinary Dog" in 1805. - KATHERINE WETZEL/VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

Beginning with the cave paintings done in Lascaux, France, thousands of years ago, humans have been fascinated with imagery of animals. And why not? We eat them, we domesticate them, we wear them, we worship them and we sacrifice them.

"Domestic, Wild, Divine: Artists Look at Animals" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts pulls from the museum's collection to display myriad artists' perspectives on everything from insects to otherworldly creatures.

Paul Mellon curator Mitchell Merling conceived of the exhibit in the middle of the night after researching sporting art. "This one is special because we usually draw exclusively from the Mellon collection," he says. "But this is based on thematic relationships and draws from across the collection and is represented by superlative examples. My colleagues shared some of their very best works. This is not a show out of storage but drawn from the walls."

The breadth of work on display makes for interesting contrasts in periods, styles, materials and intent. John Audubon's "Pileated Woodpecker" provides detailed images of the birds in their natural habitat, while New York artist and avid birdwatcher Fred Tomaselli's "Woodpecker" presents an almost psychedelic depiction using collage and elaborate ornamentation suspended in a clear, epoxy resin.

Naturally, dogs have a presence. The museum's well-loved "Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog" by Philip Reinagle, shows a spaniel playing "God Save the King" next to the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Woman with Dog I," which displays a fashionably dressed denizen of Berlin looking as proud of her pooch as she is of her fur-lined jacket.

Former L.A. punk magazine artist Fed Tomaselli credits growing up near Disneyland for his hallucinatory work such as 2008's "Woodpecker." - KATHERINE WETZEL/VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

Further into the exhibit, bears start to appear, and the feel of animals as friends dissipates for a darker outlook. An 18th-century, bear-baiting jug, intended to hold ale, looks relatively cute until the viewer learns that it was given as a souvenir of the barbaric sport of setting dogs upon a declawed and tethered bear. Far more palatable is François Pompon's "The White Bear," a white marble depiction of a bear's smooth lines and elegant curves. "Figure of a Shaman as a Bear Spirit" alludes to the shaman's key role in consulting spirit animals in Northwest coast Indian culture.

The Mellon Galleries are in a quiet corner that offers a respite in a museum that's become a bustling cultural centerpiece of Richmond. The exhibit offers an intimate experience even as it reminds of animals' central roles in human lives. "There's a sense of amazement at how important animals are to us and probably even a little bit of shame about how we take them for granted" Merling says.

By thinking more globally and crossing collections, the museum has created an exhibit worthy of its long tenure. "It's a long-running show, but it'll have legs," Merling says. "Man, does it have legs!" S

"Domestic, Wild, Divine: Artists Look at Animals" runs through Aug. 4 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. For information, call 340-1400 or go to vmfa.state.va.us to see the array of programs tied to the exhibit.

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