Cryptoecology: Animal instinct

Ruth Stanford hunts for the truth

Last summer, the international art press suffered a collective aneurism trying to figure out if artist Peter Friedl's 10-foot stuffed giraffe was art or mere taxidermy when it went on display at Documenta, a major international art fair in Kassel, Germany. Ruth Stanford's Cryptoecology at Eyedrum unequivocally makes the point that the two need not be at odds if handled with insight and artistic bravura.

Cryptoecology is built around a core of 17 sculptures and installation works, most of which feature faux animal parts gleaned from taxidermy catalogs and supply houses. A row of cast-resin duck heads mounted on wooden plaques comprises the "Indicator Species" series. Each holds in its bill a limp rubber skin in the shape of a tombstone that bears the name of the duck species. An indicator species, in ecology parlance, can reveal the health of an entire ecosystem based on whether its population is thriving or suffering. In a single deft move, Stanford has combined issues of death, impending ecological catastrophe, trophyism and the culture of memorials. Would that all artists could say so much with so little.

On the opposite wall hang more trophies. This time, fish heads are mounted on abstract, colorful backgrounds contained in ornate gold frames. Inside each fish's open mouth sits a miniature scene of some disaster or conflict writ small with inch-tall figurines and set pieces: a toxic spill here, a bloody triage scene there. Each diorama is a totem of unrepentant hubris, humanity's pride and the fall before which it goeth.

Eyedrum's gallery space isn't easily tamed. Its raw warehouse trappings have overwhelmed many a well-meaning installation. That Stanford manages fully to command not one but two spaces – the entire rear gallery comprises a single, highly participatory work – is another testament to the artist's verve.

Stanford, a GSU sculpture professor and former biologist, fills an important role in Atlanta's creative culture. She combines a fearless intellectual engagement with an intense emphasis on craft. With Cryptoecology, Stanford joins a small cohort of such craft--concept heavy hitters that includes Robert Witherspoon, Corinna Sephora Mensoff and Kerry Moore. Someone get on the phone to Kassel: Ruth Stanford may be able to show them a thing or two.

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