Jenny Kendler’s “Therianthropy” (2012) (All images by author)

CHICAGO — Walking down an urban Chicago street on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I noticed a gathering of greenery nestled in the crack of a sidewalk jutting up against a cement wall. These small moments of nature poking through the urban landscape reveal themselves when we are not paying attention to anything particular, but rather reveling in what is alive around us. It is in these moments that Chicago-based artist Jenny Kendler’s work situates itself, wrapping around the mind like a vine crawling up the exterior of a 100-year-old brick building.

Kendler’s latest exhibition, “The Hall of Disappearing,” at Chicago Artists’ Coalition/BOLT Project Space through November 1, is a celebration of the fusion of nature and culture and a thoughtful reflection on how we continually morph and bend nature. Through our mindful interactions with nature, we become further entrenched in it, yet we are painfully aware of its fragility. This is not about Mother Earth or Father Sun; this is about what we human/animal beings have created through our intrusion into and embrace of nature. Kendler suggests that this new natural world is sensorial, temporal, and unsteady as the ground upon which we walk.

Jenny Kendler’s “Burial Mound” (2012)

Two interactive works ground the exhibition, drawing the viewer into the narrow, rectangular, white gallery space. “Therianthropy” (2012) (seen at top) is an orange tent with rainbow-colored pennants hanging horizontally on a string above it. The rainbow colors Kendler uses suggest a two-fold meaning — rainbows are both naturally occurring reflections of light in water droplets, and manmade symbols of bliss and gaiety (sexual or not). The pennants outside the tent reference the former, yet recognize man’s interest in reinterpreting and appropriating the rainbow. An array of furs line the interior of the tent; viewers are invited to partially undress and enjoy the feeling of their skin rubbing against the fur that once belonged to a warm, living, breathing animal body. “Therianthropic” means “partly bestial and partly human in form,” which is exactly the division one experiences in this piece.

“Burial Ground” (2012) is an igloo-shaped mound covered in the same furs that line the interior of “Therianthropy.” A soft, orange-yellow, man-made fabric coats the opening at the top of the piece, but there is no entrance in or out of the structure. Rainbow-colored flags line the perimeter of the mound, and smoke seeps out through the top, add further mystery to the goings on inside. One can’t help but wonder what exactly was buried, what the cause of its death might be, and if there’s a haunting occurring within.

Jenny Kendler’s “Handle (You are Welcome Here)” (2012)

In addition to the larger works, Kendler miniaturizes the rainbow flag sculpture. At the entrance of the exhibition space, tiny rainbow flags ring a fungal disk attached to a wooden, handle-like branch that’s mounted onto the wall. The repetition of forms, as Kendler echoes, is something we see in nature — trees, mushrooms, and wood branches exist ad-nauseum in the outside world, repeating without exactly replicating. Kendler plays with this idea throughout the exhibition; she is, after all, creating her own fusion landscape. Her small pieces add ornamental touches to the themes that the artist expounds upon in the larger works.

Sharpened ends of thorned honey locust twigs jut out from a one wall, forming a circular outline. The artist found these fragments during a stint as a visiting artist to the ACRE Residency in Steuben, Wisconsin. Other materials, like the lichen that appears to grow out of a wall corner, were foraged by the artist during a recent trip to Norway. Like most of us nowadays, Kendler also spends a fair amount of time on the Internet as well as the outdoors. In another piece installed on the gallery wall, the artist “foraged” a collection of scallop shells (Chlamys nobilis) from the wilderness of eBay. She paints them rainbow colors and uses them to line a portion of wall space.

Kitschy birds abound in other small sculptures like “Reclaim (Mirror Test)” (2012), an eerie twinning of two black birds. Rather than flitting off into the distance, the birds face each other, balancing a single tiny jewel in their beaks. Are we cloning and manufacturing animals like factory farming gone wild, or are these naturally occurring moments? And more importantly, is there even a difference anymore? Kendler’s surreal assemblages provoke such probing questions.

Jenny Kendler’s “Reclaim (Mirror Test)” (2012)

Keeping in line with her focus on environmental sustainability, Kendler double-checked to make sure that the shells came from a green source. Similarly, the furs used for both of the larger installations came from a woman who sold vintage fur coats online. Through pure coincidence, she happened to have an array of damaged coats that she wouldn’t be able to use; she sold them to Kendler at a discounted price. As her process and her final sculptural pieces both show, Kendler’s work, though it interacts with nature, is sure to never damage or take from it, creating a wholly sustainable practice. Organic but not always grounded, her art floats somewhere between a true forest landscape and a dreamworld of altered animalistic realities, signaling what could yet be to come.

Jenny Kendler’s The Hall of Disappearing runs at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition/BOLT Project Space (217 North Carpenter Street) through November 1.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...