Lower life forms attract Catherine Chalmers. No, she's not interested in Bud-drinking, ball-scratching shlubs, but rather such tiny creatures as caterpillars and mice. As she explains in Food Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators, and Prey, a book dedicated to her artwork, her "interests are with animals that make the world go round but get little attention."
Chalmers' fascination began when she raised, observed and photographed flies—a crash course in zoology and photography for the artist educated in engineering and painting. Her latest inspiration, showcased on the February cover of Artnews, is the lowliest of the low: cockroaches. Not only does she paint them to look like flowers and ladybugs, but she also stages executions of the critters. Strangely, some of the magazine's readers were so offended by her treatment of the reviled creatures (not just the hangings, electrocutions, etc., but the painting, too) that they canceled their subscriptions.
Just imagine how subscription cancelers would react toward Chalmers' Cal State Long Beach exhibit. Known for encouraging technical rather than ideological artwork, the university art museum is the surprise host of the New York artist's first West Coast show. Inspired by the simultaneous eating and dying that occurs when one animal eats another living animal, "Prey and Eat" features 16 color photos from her "Food Chain and Pinkies" series (1994-1997). Blown up to monstrous proportions and shot against a clean, white backdrop, the small subjects are vividly brought to the forefront in the 40-by-60-inch, poster-sized prints. Labeled with matter-of-fact titles and almost all centrally positioned, the scenes give an illusion of a seemingly systematic chain of prey-and-predator interactions; Chalmers has dictated every one.
In the central gallery, the nine-photo sequence from the "Food Chain" series begins with Caterpillars Eating a Tomato. Two bright green, black-and-white-striped worms burrow into a ripe tomato. Joined by some of their buddies, they turn the tomato into a pile of juicy red flesh. Their engorged bodies lie around the spilled seed of their munching orgy. Finally, a lone caterpillar, surrounded by scattered bits of juice, seeds and skin, embraces the dark green stem in the afterglow.
His moment of triumph, however, is short-lived. He (or maybe it's one of his pals) becomes the main course in the next three photos, each titled Praying Mantis and a Caterpillar. Scene 1: a stemmy mantis curiously cocks its head, eyeing the caterpillar, which looks defenseless except for the horn sticking from his butt. Scene 2: the carnivorous insect has seized the plump herbivore with its two front legs, ripped open its flesh and nibbles on a bloody gut that could be the tomato's insides. Final cut: a closeup of the mantis having munched more of its meal and revealing the worm's white and yellow guts pooled in tomato juice.
But the sequence isn't over yet. It's the praying mantis' turn now in photos called Frog and a Praying Mantis. This time, a ghostly counterpart sits atop a grinning frog in what is the exhibit's most humorous moment. It is but a gleeful instant: he opens his cavernous mouth, tongue unfurled, as the mantis peers down below. In a flash, the insect is gone, and the frog sits, mouth slightly agape. It is as if the mantis was never there. Though this image ends the "Food Chain" series, there's an impending sense of doom that somewhere, perhaps behind or above the backdrop, there must be a predator—a big heron or French food connoisseur—waiting to snatch up the unsuspecting frog.
It's Chalmers' seven photos from her "Pinkies" series that really strikes a sick yet fascinating nerve. In "Birth," a black-and-white mama mouse delivers her litter on a sterile, white floor streaked with blood and globs of afterbirth. Bringing life into the world seems messier than the clear-cut process of eating. The new mom nurses her babies, who are then heaped into an impossibly big pile—certainly more than she could have done without artistic assistance. Writhing about, the tiny, pink, blind babies—called "pinkies" in pet-shop feed lingo—look like little discarded fetuses.
One of the unlucky ones becomes the prey in "Snake Eating a Baby Mouse." The gross-looking baby doesn't elicit the kind of empathy a fully grown, furry mouse would, but the fact that it is utterly defenseless makes the scene tragic. There's a close-to-home uneasiness that comes from this killing, which involves a fellow mammal—unlike the fruit, insects and amphibian involved her Food Chain series.
In stark contrast to Chalmers' colorful, thought-provoking work is the museum's other exhibit, "19+1+1," which features works recently added to its permanent collection. Of the 21 items, only Tina Barney's 1992 color print "The Trustee and the Curator" sparks remote interest with its behind-the-scenes image of two be-suited men seeming preoccupied by matters other than art. Representative of previous exhibits, these investments are disappointing —especially since the space could have been used to showcase more of Chalmers' work. From a less cynical perspective, though, the fact the museum is hosting her work to begin with could be a sign of more risqué work to come to and from Cal State Long Beach.
"Prey and Eat" and "19+1+1" at Cal State Long Beach, University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Through April 29. Suggested donation: $3; students, $1.