The Great Animal Artists of Our Time: From Thai Elephants to Brooklyn Terriers, the Ascent of Creatures Great and Small in the Art World

So your pooch is your best bud. Your kitty is the cat's meow. Your horse defies the lyrics of the "Mr. Ed" theme song and communicates his innermost thoughts directly to you. Well, aren't you special. Not as special, however, as the lucky owners of certain stars of the animal art world. Yes, we said it, the animal art world. Because at this rate, with cats snapping photos in the back alleys of Seattle and turtles churning out hundreds of paintings before easing into an early retirement, this is a regular phenomenon. Soon, the penguins will be opening auction houses, the bears will be developing a secondary market practice, and the rats will be launching art fairs.

Already, in 2008, paintings made by red pandas, frogs, Komodo dragons, kangaroos, ocelots, rhinos, and giraffes were being peddled by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in their vast "Art by Animals" sale, conducted by the Auction Network. And in 2005, three abstract paintings produced way back in the 1950s (when abstraction was, of course, quite avant-garde) by a chimpanzee named Congo flew off the auction block at Bonhams for a total of $26,352, while works by Renoir and Andy Warhol in the same auction failed to sell.

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A study released earlier this year in the journal Psychology Science attested that students of both art and psychology could differentiate abstract paintings created by monkeys, chimps, gorillas, and elephants from abstract paintings created by renowned artists, but that hasn't stopped people from investing in an array of animal-made art. The question, however, remains: does the animal artist view his or her work as art?

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The Web site of the Dana Foundation — a private organization supporting brain research — published a 2006 report titled "Elephants That Paint, Birds That Make Music" by Gisela Kaplan, Ph.D and Lesley J. Rogers, D. Phil., D.Sc., who gathered together their graduate degrees to attest that while "mainstream science has yet to be convinced that animals have an aesthetic sense... these days some scientists who study animals are increasingly convinced that they do have higher cognitive abilities." So, a resounding maybe! In the meantime, we humans can enjoy ARTINFO's roundup of some of the top artists working today in the animal kingdom... and many of them without opposable thumbs! 

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DOGS

The writers of the Dana Foundation's "Elephants That Paint" study are quick to point out that "the dog's eyes see well at a distance but cannot focus on close objects. Anything closer to them than about a foot to a foot and a half — as paintings on canvas made by holding a brush between their teeth would be — is out of focus." Rogers and Kaplan posit that canine artists "can see movement well and might prefer to express art — if that is what they do — in moving pictures." (That's what Kylie, the Staffordshire bull terrier of British artist duo the Chapman Brothers, did, when she helped her two-legged compatriots complete an art video via a camera strapped to her collar.)

But consider the case of Tillie (short for Tillamook Cheddar, a cheese she's fond of), a Jack Russell Terrier who rose to fame, like so many great artists these days, in Brooklyn, in the early aughts. Dubbed "the most successful living animal painter" by the Art Newspaper and "a sham" by New York magazine's Jerry Saltz, at the tender age of three she'd sold over 100 works (with titles like "It's the Stick I Want" and "Furry Brancusi," some for prices in the five-figure range) and had exhibited in six single-pup shows. She had work on display at the tony National Arts Club, collaborating on pieces for that show with human art stars such as Tom Sachs and Dirk Westphal. "She'll bite you if you get in the way of her work," Tillie's freelance writer owner, Bowman Hastie told National Geographic.

CATS

When we recently published an in-depth profile of Cooper, Seattle's ascendant feline photographer, we knew that it would land on its feet. The Internet likes cats. The Internet likes photos. The Internet loves Cooper! We didn't know that Cooper would become a phenomenon among our Russian readers, however, which he did, with his Eggleston-esque shots — taken from a digital camera worn around his neck that automatically takes photos on a timer — blowing up in the Russian Federation.

So to this loving audience out in the former seat of the Soviet Union, and others, we also present Carolee Schneemann's too often forgotten feline friends. In "The Lives and Deaths of Carolee's Cats: Intimate Encounters, Gentle Transgressions and Incalculable Ethics," which originally appeared in the journal C: International Contemporary Art, we are reminded of the cats that "pepper her oeuvre," in order, "as Derrida would have it, to mark their 'unsubstitutable singularity.'" The kitties Kitch, Cluny, and Vesper starred in many films, but our favorite is perhaps "Kitch's Last Meal," a Super-8 film in which that puss is shot eating one meal every week until she died. Then there's always her more contentious "Infinity Kisses" series, in which Schneemann pretty much makes out with her cats. Ick.

This section of course cannot be concluded without a mention of the indispensable book, "Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics," by New Zealand author Burton Silver. You really just have to read it and ponder, as it puts it in its opening pages, "Why do cats sit for long periods in self-absorbed reflection? Why do they purr? What is happening when they suddenly rush madly about? And why do they lie on their backs and look at things upside down?" Don't fret, "All these questions, and more, are now able to be answered within the very understandable context of art."

HORSES

Horses around the world have apparently all experienced the impulse to clench a paintbrush in their teeth and begin to paint. Meet, for instance, Cholla, the Mustang/Quarter Horse named after a cactus, who at 26 years old is "still quite wild! Your typical artist type." After expressing interest in his owner, a former ballerina named Renee, as she sat painting the fences on his Nevada home, this 1,200-pound painter took up the hobby himself, and now has sold work in some 28 states, as well as abroad.

Meanwhile, in Spain, Napoleon, a four-year-old black pure-bred Dutch Friesian stallion has been cranking out acrylic-on-canvas works, which go for anywhere between €3,300-6,000. This steed also applies paint by holding a brush in his chompers, although he works in conjunction with the human artist Sergio Caballero to augment Caballero's weird photographic images. Their new Barcelona show at Mutt gallery is called "Abstraction in the Stable," and has been described as Caballero as "sort of de Kooning in style."

Zip over to Poland, and there's Maceba, who, according to owner Bozena Wrona, sometimes "just pounces on the canvas and paints for a long time with a lot of expression," but other times is just not "in the mood." Working in the same style as Napoleon and Cholla, this mare had completed 30 canvases by the fall of last year.


ELEPHANTS

Now, elephants have been busy applying paint to canvas for quite some time. In the '90s, for example, Russian artist Alexander Melamid, with his then artistic partner Vitaly Komar, addressed concerns with the plight of out-of-work domesticated elephants in Asia, like those who were no longer used for logging in Thailand, by establishing art schools for the listless ranks of the unemployed (much like many M.F.A. programs in the U.S.). Anyway, their model — which produced paintings that sold at auction, and have been exhibited in museums — has since flourished in Thailand, with various "conservation centers" training elephants to create strangely figurative works.

You've probably seen the famous YouTube clip of an elephant painting a fellow pachyderm holding a flower, which we're pretty sure is as bogus as can be, but the figure of the elephant-artist is not fictive. Even in the unexotic realm of Milwaukee, Brittany, an African elephant at the local zoo, has more recently managed to sell work for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars, with the AP reporting that "Brittany is an eager artist. Her ears flare out as she attacks the canvas, swiping at it almost like Zorro wielding a sword, and she finishes in a matter of minutes."


SEA LIONS

"If they don't want to participate, they'll just ignore you, they'll leave," Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium curator Henry Kacprzyk told the AP in 2008 of his zoo's three sea lions. "There's not much you can do — they swim faster than we do." But still, the slippery creatures have been known to slap on some paint before dipping back into the watery depths of their tanks — just look at Morgan and Arrow, tenants at the Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park in the U.K. According to staff, the two male sea lions create different paintings based on their mood, and favor the colors orange and red. It might be worth mentioning, however, that sea lions are colorblind.

TURTLES

It's impossible not to love Koopa the turtle. In his short five-year career this ambitious guy created 827 paintings, a smattering of which now hang in all 50 states as well as foreign countries from Canada to Bahrain. It would seem that nothing could be reprehensible about this shelled creative — who, don't worry, is quite "acclimated to being rinsed off in the shower" — except that based on his Web site he seems to be a Red Sox fan. Oh, and his owner, Kira, makes "museum-quality breast paintings." As in, she paints with her bazooms. Don't try either of these art-making methods at home. The boob thing because it's gross and the turtle thing because, according to Kira, "What was safe for Koopa is not safe for your turtle, especially if you don't do the necessary research and take the time to develop a trusting relationship. The actions of a frightened turtle could easily lead to respiratory infections, blindness, and even death."


ORANGUTANS, CHIMPS, AND GORILLAS

At long last we arrive at those closer relatives to man from the animal kingdom. Orangutans are in fact known as the "people of the forest", a title justified by Buschi, who took up painting after his partner Suma died and managed to nab a solo show in Germany at the ripe old age of 34. Buschi is, of course, an orangutan, who lived in the Osnabrück Zoo in Lower Saxony.

Consulting once again the "Elephants That Paint" treatise, one can also read of Moja, a chimpanzee taught to sign by Beatrix Gardner, Ph.D., and Allen Gardner, Ph.D. After Moja made one evocative sketch which resembled a potato with wings, she was able to communicate via sign language that the subject of her work was a bird. (Chimps, in fact, are known to begin to draw at an early age without food rewards, and will develop their "scribbling" skills as they mature.)

Koko the famed sign language-strained gorilla, on the other hand, painted what she dubbed a bird, only to disappoint critics who noted that her picture had far many wings to be a true representation of an avian. But who cares — now that Koko boasts Betty White as a best friend and ally, she can probably leave her artistic pursuits by the wayside.