“I had some forms cast in metal and when they came back from the foundry they were cut in pieces... The casts were around the studio for a while, and then I started putting them back together in different ways—rearranging them into new shapes that became more abstract.” Bruce Nauman
Created in 1989, Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Three Small Animals) is a striking example of the artist’s critically-acclaimed series of animal hybrids, cast alternately in wax, polyurethane, stainless steel, and in the present work (which is suspended from the ceiling by wires), aluminum. Similar versions are owned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (in polyurethane foam) and the Tate, London (also aluminum). Both whimsical and bizarre, Nauman’s series combines body parts from various wild animals, including deer, wolf, bear, fox and others, based on taxidermy molds that he then recombines in perverse permutations. Stripped of their fur and other distinguishing characteristics like eyes, ears, whiskers and hooves, these unexpected new hybrids exude a haunting beauty.
In Untitled (Three Small Animals), Nauman’s elaborate three-part structure fuses the body parts of different animals in unexpected arrangements. Limbs protrude at odd angles, as if flayed, broken or lopped off, while the delicate silvery sheen of the aluminum lends a ghostly effect. The animals retain the spectral forms of their lifeless bodies, whose anatomy suggests small predators like the fox or wolf. Cast in aluminum and suspended from the ceiling by wires, the three creatures that Nauman creates appear to hover weightlessly, as if floating in mid-air. Nauman has deliberately positioned the piece so that the animal forms hang at eye-level, forcing the viewer to confront the piece head-on. The effect is both jarring and magical, remaining resolutely not of this world.
This work is an early example of Nauman’s series of cast animal hybrids, which he began in 1988 after visiting a taxidermy shop in New Mexico. Experimenting with different materials, Nauman worked with increasing variety, eventually experimenting with wax, polyurethane, aluminum and stainless steel, among others. As the series progressed, Nauman produced increasingly bizarre yet fascinating combinations. The animal forms took on greater permutations, arranged in groups, suspended from the ceiling with wires, looping together in circles or stacked one upon the next in pyramids. In doing so, he experimented with different animal parts, combining them into impossible arrangements to create strange hybrid-like forms. He explained: “I had some forms cast in metal and when they came back from the foundry they were cut in pieces, I guess because it was easier to cast them that way. The casts were around the studio for a while, and then I started putting them back together in different ways—rearranging them into new shapes that became more abstract.” He explained: “They are beautiful things. They are universally accepted, generic forms used by taxidermists yet they have an abstract quality that I really like” (B. Nauman, quoted in C. Cordes, “Talking with Bruce Nauman: An Interview 1989,” in J. Kraynak, ed., Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews, Cambridge, 2002,
pp. 376; 374).
The animal hybrids eventually opened up new avenues for Nauman, whose work in the following years began to include cast body parts like heads and hands, lending his work an expressive warmth not often found in his previous work. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Nauman’s Untitled (Three Small Animals) is the life-like quality the animals nevertheless retain, their hardened aluminum forms uncannily calling to mind their furry, real-life counterparts. Indeed, Nauman seems to capture and suspend the magical quality of the living animal by recasting it in aluminum and suspending it in mid-air. It evokes the myriad associations, myths and legends that readily come to mind, from storybook characters to talking animals and animated cartoons and film, not to mention the furry creatures we allow into our home and keep as pets. Still sinister associations linger, however, when one considers that the fox is often hunted for sport rather than for food, which might then allude to the relationship of hunter to prey, and the original use of the taxidermy molds, used to mount animals as trophies.
The genesis for Nauman’s suspended animal hybrids lies in the 1988 masterpiece Carousel (Gemeentemuseum Den Haag), in which Nauman used polyurethane animal forms that he strung up to the ends of a steel fulcrum, which slowly rotates around a central axis. The hanging animals drag along the floor as they spin, and the taxidermy forms that Nauman employed make them appear like carcasses in a slaughterhouse, strung up on meat hooks. There is a gruesome quality that directly contradicts the light-hearted joy of a typical carousel, as if Nauman intends to dismantle the cheerful artifice that masks everyday reality, albeit with an element of twisted humor. Its effect on Contemporary artists cannot be overstated. The art critic Peter Plagens describes: “There’s no missing the implication of tragedy and brutality in the animal bodies being dragged unwillingly around...and leaving circular tracks on the floor...as if digging in their heels or hooves in objection to going to the slaughterhouse. ...When we look at the piece, which is installed so that the animals greet us at eye level, we feel a little squeamish and may perhaps promise ourselves not to eat meat for a while. On the other hand, even Nauman’s more readily grotesque pieces contain an inevitable element of dark humor, even cheerfulness” (P. Plagens, “Horses and Other Animals,” in Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, London, 2014, p. 212).