To all you disbelievers who thought a cohesive body of work about squirrels and hunting couldn’t possibly exist, shame on you. In “Squirrel Season” at Mercury Twenty gallery in Oakland, Julie Alvarado explores what it is that drives nice city folk to rage against, revile and even (try to) exterminate squirrels. It all began when the artist’s husband, fed up with bushy-tailed invaders disturbing the peace in their garden, picked up his BB gun. He wasn’t allowed to shoot to kill, only to dissuade, but Alvarado soon realized neither she nor the squirrels had much to worry about in terms of her hunter-husband’s marksmanship. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle led the two on a pilgrimage to Cabela’s, a sporting goods store of epic proportions in Reno, Nevada. Viewing the camouflage and pink-toned merchandise for women “with interest and, at times, morbid fascination,” Alvarado began thinking about why we hunt and what it means to do so.
Often working around a single theme, the artist blames her drive to create immersive environments on too many vacations spent at Disneyland and the Madonna Inn, a resort with 110 individually decorated rooms advertised under such names as Whispering Hills and Country Gentleman. Nostalgia, wicked humor and a feminist bent characterize the works in this show, which includes a frilly screen-printed hunting outfit crowned by a hot pink NRA cap reading, “I shoot like a girl.” Much of Alvarado’s art is not what it seems. Her artist statement reminds us that to hunt means, “to catch or kill game for food or sport. To search eagerly or carefully to try to find.” This multi-pronged definition leads to images of squirrels, by turns chubby, rabid and wide-eyed, perched variously on towers of unmatched lost socks from the dryer, discarded cell phones and scattered contact lenses. Part self-portrait, part mug shot, these works depict the hunter of eyeglasses and cell service in each of us. If Alvarado can’t shoot something herself, she can certainly imagine what drives some to the brink.
If squirrels don’t steal your car keys, they might nest in your elaborate up-do or dive-bomb your classy camper vacation. Drawing inspiration from vintage advertisements for trailer life, the pages of a hunting magazine or non-copyrighted photographs of fancy hairstyles online, Alvarado explores different squirrel disasters in which over-sized varmint stuff their cheeks with tiny humans, munch away at UC Berkeley’s iconic campanile or loom behind a blissfully oblivious hunter couple out for a shooting spree with Lassie. Playing with scale, minute details and double meanings, the artist provokes her viewers into thinking twice and if nothing else laughing out loud.
Whether it’s based on a willing suspension of disbelief or on the truest of truths, Alvarado’s latest body of work returns to the familiar theme of human interaction with – and impact on – nature. We fill up our birdfeeders with good intentions but rage against those furry-tailed creatures who scale tree trunks for some truly fast food, perhaps neglecting to question our own role in what the artist names “manufacturing our own problems.” Like the blind squirrel on the squirrel blind installed beneath a few birdfeeders, we are so close to the source that we can’t see what we’re stepping in.
There will be a reception and artist talk on Saturday, August 24th from 4:30 – 6:30pm, and the exhibition will be up through September 21st. For more information visit here.
-Contributed by Ariel Rosen