CHICAGO — My family went pumpkin picking in Wisconsin over the weekend. On the way, we drove past — and I think once over, nauseatingly, because I could not safely swerve — so many dead animals I lost count. Each time I noticed one, I took my hand off the wheel and made a gesture, a kind of Jewish sign of the cross, that I invented a few years ago in response to getting a car, and to the amount of roadkill I then began to encounter. 

There’s not a whole lot being done about roadkill, in relation to the sheer number of animals that are butchered on roadways. Based on a quick Google search, people appear to care more about blockchain art than the billions of vertebrates being destroyed by moving vehicles every year. Exceptions do not abound and are therefore worth noting. Those I’ve found meaningful include Barry Lopez’s “Apologia,” first published in 1989, chronicling the late American nature writer’s road trip from Western Oregon to South Bend, Indiana, and the many stops he made along the way to remove small animals from the tarmac as an act of respect and penitence, and a technique of awareness. Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon, originally titled Roadkill Witch, is a weird and touching middle-grade graphic novel from 2020 about an oddball girl who apprentices herself to an even odder old lady, Jacks, who sells the reconstructed skeletons of roadkill online after rescuing their bodies and using magic to set their souls free. Giovanni Aloi’s Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene (Columbia University Press, 2018) is the most current art historical take on the use of dead animals as a critical material, a category to which roadkill definitely but by no means exclusively applies. 

Jeanne Dunning, “A scab” (2022), inkjet print and charred wood frame
Jeanne Dunning, “Found objects (return to when the world was flat)” (2022), painted and mounted roadkill

Now there is Jeanne Dunning’s solo exhibition at Watershed Art & Ecology, a newish space founded by artist Claire Pentecost and writer-cartographer Brian Holmes in the former Narodni Tel Klub, a Bohemian/Czech men’s club built in 1906 to provide social space for the city’s growing Eastern European middle class. (Full disclosure: Dunning is my husband’s colleague at Northwestern University; Pentecost is mine at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. That’s how it often goes in Chicago.) The gallery is located in what was originally the building’s gymnasium, and it is currently filled with more than two dozen gray sculptures made from flattened roadkill, an immense, nearly impassable floor mandala composed of silvery ash, a trio of saturated color photographs, and a pair of videos, one shot in the woods and the other in vacant urban spaces.

Dunning first came to prominence as a conceptual photographer in the late 1980s. She has long been interested in the human body, inside and out, and more recently in processes of rot and aging as they occur in foodstuffs. She also raises chickens, used to keep bees, gardens assiduously, and for many years has done volunteer ecological restoration work at natural areas in the Chicago region. All of this is pertinent but not absolutely necessary to know. It may be better to start with the very first artwork on view, a close-up photograph of a hairy arm featuring a clumpy dark scab, out of which sprout a few green tendrils of moss.

Jeanne Dunning, “Watching grass grow” (2022), inkjet print and charred wood frame; “Found objects (return to when the world was flat)” (2022), painted and mounted roadkill

Like so much of Dunning’s work, “A scab” achieves an impossible balance of opposites: gross and beautiful, sick and healthy, strong and delicate. One begins to wonder if these qualities are really so diametrically opposed. In “Watching grass grow,” the photo that hangs on the facing wall, those aspects merge in the form of a dead brown hen, lying prone on a lawn lush with plantain, ground-ivy, clover, violets, and a shimmery emerald beetle. Her back feathers gleam in the sun. The front ones are badly mangled, and close looking reveals thick shoots of verdant grass growing right out of her remains. The picture is at once breathtakingly full of vigor and unbearably sad, not despite but because of its commingling of life and death.

To get from one photo to the other requires crossing a wooden landing bestrewn with seven slight floor sculptures. These are thin, dull-colored, and constructed from the preserved bodies of squirrels, rats, and birds crushed nearly to oblivion. Many more such items are dispersed throughout the rest of the gallery, possibly including mice and rabbits. To make “Found objects (return to when the world was flat),” Dunning carefully collected, dried, and sealed individual pieces of roadkill, painted them a uniform matte gray, and mounted them on aluminum substrates that allow them to hover ever so slightly off the floor. It can be hard to tell what used to be what. Most of the birds just look like piles of feathers, their breasts and heads long gone, though a few have landed in poses that look uncannily like flying. Easiest to identify are the rats, whose tails, it turns out, are extremely durable. One bunny — at least I think it was a bunny — resembles an old-fashioned ladies’ evening glove, dropped and soiled and left behind in the street. 

Jeanne Dunning, “I burn myself in effigy” (2022), single-channel video, 1:51:07, documents a year-long durational project

It is a visceral, deeply unpleasant experience to consider these sculptures. Like all roadkill, they attest to widespread human disregard for animal life, and their finished form insists on both their deadness and how it happened. Traditional taxidermy, which could never have been applied to creatures as mutilated as these, aspires to fix animals in naturalistic forms fit for some idealistic wilderness. It pretends that the Anthropocene never happened. It definitely makes believe that nothing ever gets pulverized by a car or shot by a hunting rifle, or even knocked out by a wall of glass. Dunning’s sculptures forcefully reject this logic, replacing it with a process of material experimentation, acknowledgment of absence, and radical formlessness that unflinchingly grapples with the destruction of life, and invites us to do so, too. And to do it without the comfort of sentimentality. But caring does not require such feelings; indeed, they can get very much in the way of meditating deeply and pragmatically on how we might truly better attend to non-human life forms. And human ones, too: in the black and white video “What’s left behind,” lumpy gray blankets lie forgotten in parking lots, by the roadside, in alleyways. Sometimes people emerge and walk away, sometimes not. The echoes between Dunning’s representation of the most neglected persons, those experiencing houselessness, and the most neglected animals, roadkill, are grievous.

How to care? Making merciless, sincere art about the most intractable problems is one way. Another is by means of fire, present here in wooden photo frames, charred to a glossy black; a half-dozen tree trunk stools, singed, that serve as gallery seating; the mandala, traced from the ash residue of monthly blazes in which Dunning burned effigies of herself; and the forest video, which records a year of her rituals. What does fire have to do with care? The stools were scorched in a controlled burn, where dead leaves and grasses are burned off a large area, mimicking naturally occurring fires; the effigy pyres were piles of invasive brush, incinerated as part of forest management and prairie restoration practices. That which looks like destruction can be necessary for amelioration, for the continuance of life, no matter how painful or grotesque the process. Burn it to the ground, bend down to pick up the dead bodies — somehow, Jeanne Dunning has been brave and determined enough to make amends.

Jeanne Dunning, “Watching grass grow” (2022), inkjet print and charred wood frame
Jeanne Dunning, “Ash mandala” (2022), ashes from the fires in which the artist burned herself in effigy; “What’s left behind” (2022), single-channel video, 26:13

Jeanne Dunning continues at Watershed Art & Ecology (1821 S. Racine Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Lori Waxman has been the Chicago Tribune’s primary art critic since 2009. She teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performs occasionally as the “60 wrd/min art critic,”...