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Friday, April 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What's Eating Them? Well, A Lot Of Things

Seattle Times Art Critic

------------------------------- Art review

"Food Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators and Prey," photographs by Catherine Chalmers, at CoCA, 65 Cedar St., Seattle, through May 22. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. -------------------------------

Gluttony. Guts. Violence. Sex. Death. Cannibalism. Sex with violence. Disguise and deception. If you think the Seattle art scene is too tame, take a walk on the wild side at the Center on Contemporary Art, where a riveting photographic show by New York artist Catherine Chalmers documents the realities of the food chain with unblinking, clinical, mordant precision.

Called "Food Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators and Prey," the show is made up of nearly 100 largish color photographs (they range from 12 inches by 18 inches to 20 inches by 30 inches) of caterpillars, houseflies, frogs, mice and other assorted insects and critters, all paired off like Roman gladiators fighting to the death. In Chalmers' take-no-prisoners duels, there is an added twist: The winner eats the loser.

Viewing the images sequentially is like seeing a film on the dog-eat-dog aspects of the natural world. In the first group of photographs, a fat green larvae of a tobacco horn worm burrows its way in and out of a plump red tomato, stuffing itself to the point of exhaustion as it annihilates the fruit, which it does with the thoroughness of a vulture picking over carrion. A few shots later the caterpillar is noticeably fatter and lies dazed in a little pool of tomato juice, the only remains of the once-gorgeous fruit.

Not to worry. The caterpillar gets his comeuppance for destroying that perfect hothouse tomato. (That tomato would cost a couple of bucks in a gourmet produce department, if you could even find a fine specimen like it for sale.) In the next series the caterpillar is paired with a praying mantis, who obviously eats fatties like this for lunch. There is some blood and guts in this group as the praying mantis rips into the caterpillar, though considering that the caterpillar is not much more than a membrane covering a lot of tomato pulp, it's not especially gruesome.

For a little kinky diversion, the next series charts the love life of praying mantises. In the first shot the male and female check each other out. Soon they are engaged in insect intercourse. (Which Chalmers says, incidentally, lasts for hours. She should know, since she had to stand there with her 35mm camera the whole time waiting for the coup de grace.) When she's finally satisfied with their liaison, the female wheels her head around and snaps off the face of her mate. In the last shots she makes quick work of him, chomping through his wings and body like a cow chewing cud.

But back to the food chain. The cocky praying mantis, for all his success with the caterpillar, fares far less well with both a tarantula (a stunningly lovely creature with furry black-and-yellow legs), and with a frog that looks like Jabba the Hutt. Let's just say that the poor praying mantis doesn't even recognize the frog as a predator, and has the insolence to leap on the frog's head. Bad move.

A series showing what happens with a pile (literally) of newborn pink mice vs. horned toads and a small corn snake have predictable outcomes. This is where the food chain stops, though in a final group of images Chalmers shows cockroaches rambling around on furniture in a doll-house-size set. Anyone who's ever lived in an old apartment in a large city may find these the creepiest shots of all, though Chalmers then shows us that with cosmetic make-overs, cockroaches can actually be quite charming. For a series she calls "Impostors," she has dolled up live cockroaches with cute stripes, dots and flocking to resemble bumble bees and ladybugs.

"I'm trying to play with subjectivity here," said Chalmers, "with why we like creatures and why we don't. We like bugs as long as they're in nature, but we dislike animals like cockroaches that live with humans because of humans." The point, Chalmers said, is that humans have created creatures that scavenge off us, such as cockroaches, with our piles of trash and wasteful, sloppy lifestyles. They like us. Yet we loathe them. Go figure.

Chalmers' overall themes in "Food Chain" are simple and self-evident. Nature isn't always pretty, but it's very efficient. Everything and everyone gets composted. We humans may not like to think of it that way, or the role we play in the food chain, but it's true.

But part of what gives this show a deliciously macabre edge is that Chalmers plays God. At the very least, she plays a willful Mother Nature who decides when and how these critters will play out their destinies. In this she represents the human race, which determines what happens to nearly all the animals and bugs in the world.

A painter turned photographer, Chalmers, who was in Seattle last week for the opening, says she has always been interested in "critters and creatures" and that she started breeding houseflies in her New York loft several years ago so she could photograph their flight patterns, mating habits and social habits. Some of these images are in the show, though they are not part of the "Food Chain" series.

Working with houseflies gave her the idea to breed other small bugs and animals and organize her own little universe of predators and prey. The images' chilling appeal is heightened by the fact that Chalmers shoots the gluttony, violence and sex on white Formica sets that suggest a laboratory.

The show was curated by Michael L. Sand, a New York-based curator, and it has already been shown in several places, including P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. And it's well worth a trip to Belltown to see it. It's one of the most refreshing and slyly witty shows to come along in a while.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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