Art ages as quickly as we do—making Grand Central Art Center's new Bill Burns show "Safety Gear for Small Animals" a rare critter indeed. It's 13 years old—ancient for an existing show to be still creaking its way around the country. "Safety Gear" debuted in New York just a year after "Kustom Kulture" defined a lifestyle/art scene/demographic at the Laguna Art Museum—yet it's arguably the more prescient show today, when we're fighting wars for oil on two fronts and Toyota's Prius is still a curiousity. Ed Roth and Robert Williams are nice and fun, but more than a decade after first opening this show Burns is in step with us now—with our melting glaciers and polar bears whose skills cannot be reintegrated into the work force; with our dying world.
"Safety Gear" is a darkly funny show—but one whose underlying point gets more serious by the minute. Its main idea of saving animals from ourselves is one which Burns, 50, has had his life to consider—and he seems not to have wasted a minute.
"About the time I finished my bachelor's degree, I began capturing small animals in order to test safety gear designed for their protection," Burns writes in his catalog essay "Our Early Days." "Of course, at this time I was using safety gear right off the shelf." Of course. And of course he says it didn't work right—one imagines tiny defective respirators; miniature life vests that wouldn't inflate (or else vests which inflated, but were immediately deflated by their wearer's quills or claws). So Burns set out to make his own—tiny survival tents for, perhaps, an out-of-place snow rabbit—but also to discover how they might be used, and this, "2,750 machine stitches and 234 hand stitches," is the result.
The title exhibit, Safety Gear Prototypes, is actually just one piece in a beguiling show, for Burns has not merely sewn together some remnant swatches and pitched it to a curator; he's meticulously planned and crafted all of it to seem factory-made—though it is not. He's imparted a gorgeous, organic feel even to his display cases, which are like giant glass eyes with their hand-rounded table bases and one-off Plexiglass bubble covers. They feel as alive as, for instance, one of his later pieces which they encase: The Eyes of Animals, a beautiful, sad, 2002 display of tiny animal models—giraffes, wolves—each next to carefully-made replicas of their eyes, which peer up at you larger than life-size. The text accompanying Eyes is, of course, antiseptically clinical—but the questions it doesn't ask are the most painful to consider.
Elsewhere, in his 1995 How to Help Animals Escape from Degraded Habits, a series of giclées, Burns explores hiding penguins in a vintage refrigerator; stashing ants inside a razor; a frog in an old movie camera—or rodents in a Volkswagen. It's nonsense, naturally—but his beautiful black-and-white prints bring the unattainable into reach.
He takes the theme of rescue to its illogical—but necessary—conclusion in a series of tiny cutaway models, the same-named How to Help Animals Escape from Degraded Habitats, which show how a tiger could be flown to safety inside a helicopter; how a whale could be driven to freedom in a gas tanker filled with seawater; how a corn snake could be concealed in a saxophone.
It's all infinitely almost possible. It makes you happy that someone is doing something to save the animals of the world, by finally adapting our millions of man-made furnishings to serve the rare species. Except, of course, we've ignoring the problem, hoping it will go away and—save those of us like Burns—we're not even suggesting a solution.
SAFETY GEAR FOR SMALL ANIMALS, AT CSUF GRAND CENTRAL ART CENTER, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-7233; WWW.GRANDCENTRALARTCENTER.COM. TUES.-THURS. & SUN., 11 A.M.-4 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-7 P.M.; CLOSED MON. AND AT CAL STATEFULLERTON MAIN ART GALLERY, 800 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 278-3262. TUES.-FRI., 12-4 P.M.; SAT. 12-2 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 9.