Best Recurring Artistic Theme

Humans and the natural world

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Critics' Picks

In 2011 a private collector of exotic animals went mad and turned his charges loose on a little town in Ohio. He was then eaten by a tiger, and the police killed 50 of his former pets. A bad scene all around, and it rippled outward, drawing the curiosity of legislators and journalists. At about the same time, a number of Chicago-based artists found themselves wondering about the fraught nature of human-nonhuman relations, and it was gratifying to see them produce work that excelled in complex, often beautiful analysis. Photographer Colleen Plumb looked at how we casually aestheticize animals, making them representational rather than real. The pictures in her show "Animals Are Outside Today" featured images of a sweater with a deer appliquéed onto it and a taxidermied duck. Rebecca Beachy illuminated the food chain in "Ground," her exhibit at ACRE, by presenting elegant (if fucking weird) projects to recycle dead animals. Beachy ground up a roadkill deer, for instance, to fill cracks in highway asphalt. And erstwhile Chicago imagist Jim Lutes turned from abstracted paintings of urban dissolution to pastoral mountain scenes. His "Dumb Country" consisted of four enormous paintings hung facing one another in the Valerie Carberry Gallery; on the floor between sat a huge boulder made of trash and encased in urethane. The boulder looked like it might've leached out of those paintings—or maybe it was waiting to explode onto them. A good year for thinking about nature, all in all. Now let's do robots!

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