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RAM’s Unique Look at the ‘American Cockroach’

Art Review

May. 10, 2010
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While some insects intrigue viewers, or even inspire a sense of awe, cockroaches almost always meet with disgust. Catherine Chalmers takes a closer look at the cockroach—and human reactions toward it—in “Catherine Chalmers: American Cockroach,” one of three interrelated exhibitions in the “All the Buzz” project at the Racine Art Museum (441 Main St., Racine).

This expansive survey features photographic artwork and videos that Chalmers creates while nurturing and examining the lives of cockroaches in her studio. Chalmers questions our perceptions of the American cockroach, or Periplaneta americana, through provocative photographs involving dioramas in which she places the bugs.

Chalmers’ work is separated into three distinct sections. “Residents” involves large color prints of cockroaches in typically human settings, specifically a home. This section includes Vanity, where one insect sits on a dresser and looks at its reflection in a mirror, and Sex (on bed), which portrays a romantic scene complete with wine bottle, golden-threaded bed linens and half-eaten fruit on the floor. These photographs create a sense of unease by placing insects within human domains.

The last series, “Executions,” plays on the ways in which unwanted insects are usually exterminated. Chalmers pictures the deadly deeds through methods traditionally used on humans, again contrasting the insect and human worlds. The black-and-white photograph Electric Chair places one six-legged creature in a miniature wooden seat, sparks shooting from between its antennae. The image triggers a wide range of emotions as the viewer contemplates this process of punishment.

Those disgusted by cockroaches may find it difficult to enjoy the exhibit on an aesthetic level, but Chalmers’ sensitivity and inventiveness inspire deep appreciation. The other two exhibitions in “All the Buzz”—by Jennifer Angus and JoAnna Poehlmann—may be easier to understand and accept, yet Chalmers’ challenging artwork presents fresh insights into our human view of the American cockroach.

“Catherine Chalmers: American Cockroach” continues through Sept. 12.


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