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Menagerie: Beth Cavener and Shelley Reed

  • Shelley Reed (American), In Dubious Battle, 2013. Oil on canvas.

  • Shelley Reed (American), In Dubious Battle (detail), 2013. Oil on canvas.

  • Shelley Reed (American), In Dubious Battle (detail), 2013. Oil on canvas.

  • Shelley Reed (American), In Dubious Battle (detail), 2013. Oil on canvas.

About the Exhibition

The sculptures I create focus on human psychology, stripped of context and rationalization, and articulated through animal and human forms. On the surface, these figures are simply feral and domestic individuals suspended in a moment of tension. Beneath the surface they embody the impacts of aggression, territorial desires, isolation, and pack mentality.

-Beth Cavener

Beth Cavener’s ceramic sculptures combine human and animal traits in both form and subject matter. The multi-hued figures in Cavener’s Emotions series are named for the four “humours,” the Greco-Roman theory that physical health and personality are determined by the relative balance of bodily fluids: the blood-red The Sanguine is wound tight with energy, poised for activity; The Melancholic is pale, weighed down in thought or sorrow; the yellow The Choleric is posed in motion, expressing a youthful energy; hung from its hips and looking impassively outward, The Phlegmatic’s pale blue features suggest the winter of age. In each, the intricate details of facial features, bodily form, color, and the lines delineating fur, muscle, and bone express and elicit a range of human emotions and experiences. Reflecting on her fascination with animal and human behavior, the artist says that since childhood she has learned “to read meaning in the subtler signs; a look, the way one holds one’s hands, the tightening of muscles in the shoulders, the incline of the head, the rhythm of a walk, and the slightest unconscious gestures.” Old or young, spry or limp, aggressive or acquiescent, taunting or fearful, Cavener’s stoneware Menagerie explores “those uncomfortable, awkward edges between animal and human….Entangled in their own internal and external struggles, the figures are engaged with the subjects of fear, apathy, violence and powerlessness. There is something conscious and knowing captured in their gestures and expressions, both an invitation and a rebuke.”

Shelley Reed’s monumental, eleven panel painting, In Dubious Battle, depicts an allegorical narrative, casting animals from art historical paintings as the characters in an unfolding drama that ends in an epic struggle between dogs, tigers, lions, and leopards. By painting in shades of grey, black, and white, Reed distills the scene and unifies the image by focusing on the heightened emotion between the animals. The artist spent years and thousands of hours painting excerpts and details from Old Master European paintings, often working from paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and from reproductions in art history books. Reed was fascinated by these animals; painted before the invention of photography, artists painted animals from memory, the stories from other people, or their imaginations. The resulting images, often fantastical renderings, were frequently very different from reality. In Dubious Battle is a mash-up of these details and passages, appropriations from twenty-three different artists including Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Alexandre-François Desportes, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, and George Stubbs, among others. While there are hints of human presence—the scenes take place within buildings, on top of drapery, and near guns, instruments, baskets of fruit, vases, and bottles—they emphasize the absence of people.

The title of the painting comes from John Milton’s 17th-century poem, Paradise Lost, when Satan speaks to his troops and refers to the fight against the almighty, undefeatable God as In Dubious Battle. The struggle between good and evil is a defining aspect of the human condition, one that the artist evokes in the painting. As Reed explains, “there’s an ominous element; are humans a threat to the animals that exist in their absence? The domestic and the wild exist in dangerous proximity. You see animals that were bred to be domestic, and you see animals tearing each other apart. There’s a hint of aggression—as if violence could break out at any time. There’s a hint of something sinister.”

Beth Cavener was born in Pasadena, California in 1972, the daughter of a molecular biologist and an art teacher. Cavener graduated from Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania in 2002, studied at the Appalachian Center for Craft, Tennessee Tech University, Smithville, Tennessee and in 2002 completed her MFA in ceramics at The Ohio State University. Cavener’s works have been collected and exhibited in museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Design, the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, and many others.

Shelly Reed was awarded a Traveling Fellowship in 2013 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and was a finalist for a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in 2012.  In 2006 she received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. She was the recipient of the 2005 Maud Morgan Award from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and a 2005 Berkshire Taconic Artist’s Resource Trust Grant. Her work can be found in public and private collections including: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Wellington Management Company, Fidelity Investment Corporation, Hallmark Collection, Lila Acheson Wallace Collection, Bank of Boston, Rose Art Museum, Danforth Museum, and the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.

Beth Cavener (American)
The Choleric, 2010
The Melancholic, 2010
The Phlegmatic, 2010
The Sanguine, 2010
Stoneware, paint, mixed media

Breathe, 2008

Shelley Reed (American)
In Dubious Battle, 2013
Oil on canvas

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