Remembering Earth Day with a Forgotten Artist

Paulette Nenner, "Crucified Coyote" (c. 1981), hand-colored photograph on board attached to gold-painted wood, 16 1/4 x 11 in (courtesy Gallery 98)
Paulette Nenner, “Crucified Coyote” (c. 1981), hand-colored photograph on board attached to gold-painted wood, 16 1/4 x 11 in (courtesy Gallery 98)

Because humans need special days to remind us to pay attention to issues we should care about all the time, today is the Earth Day, an annual reminder of the fragility of the planet and the necessity of protecting it. And since we’re here, why not stop to remember those things with art?

To that end, Gallery 98 has called our attention to artist Paulette Nenner, an animal rights activist and member of the late ’70s/early ’80s artist collective Colab. Nenner’s work focused on the relationship between humans and animals in grisly and humorous ways — a tree-hugging project, for instance, or a series of skeletons of road-kill animals “entombed in grotesquely blackened, rotted remnants of fur, coated in clear resin,” as Kay Rosen wrote in the Village Voice in 1980.

Paulette Nenner in front of "Crucified Coyote" (1981) (photo ©Lisa Kahane)
Paulette Nenner in front of “Crucified Coyote” (1981) (photo ©Lisa Kahane)

Nenner, who died suddenly and prematurely at age 46 of pneumonia, is perhaps best known — when she’s still known at all — for her contribution to the 1981 exhibition Animals in the Arsenal at the Central Park Zoo. There Nenner displayed “Crucified Coyote,” which was precisely what it sounds like: a stuffed dead coyote nailed to a 11-foot-tall wooden cross. Nenner said she saw the piece was “a reaction to certain Judeo-Christian concepts which inadvertently alienated humanity from animals and the rest of nature when individual worth became a major religious tradition.”

That explanation didn’t win over then New York City Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, who had the work removed from Animals in the Arsenal within a few hours of its opening. Nenner challenged the censorship in court but lost when a judge ruled it justified, because Nenner hadn’t submitted the work to the Parks Commissioner for approval.

Gallery 98, an online gallery specializing in art and ephemera from the ’70s and ’80s, has now acquired a different version of “Crucified Coyote,” a hand-colored photograph on board attached to gold-painted wood that comes from a small edition Nenner designed after the censorship incident. They’re selling it along with a deluxe version of the catalogue that accompanied Nenner’s memorial exhibition in 1989, two years after her death, at the Brecht Forum (which recently announced its closure). The miniature “Crucified Coyote” doesn’t have the same bite as the original dead animal, but it’s an intriguing initiation into the world of a largely forgotten artist who stands out in her vocal commitment to the environment.

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