On a recent visit to the sites of ancient cave drawings in France, Jenn Houle couldn’t help but be awed and humbled by their sheer majesty and history — but what most struck her, she said, was the “drive and the earnestness” of their prehistoric creators.
In some cases, the “artists” would have had to scale rock walls to heights of 25 feet or more; in other instances, they would have been required to squeeze through a 3-foot-wide opening and then belly-crawl a few hundred feet to get to their “canvas.”
“And nobody knows why,” Houle mused. “It shows our very early drive to record the world around us and to leave a record behind.”
Houle is fascinated by this eternal struggle of sentient beings to try to make sense of the world and their place in it (including her own); she explores this motif in her whimsically named exhibit, “Meteors are Space Eggs,” on view September 16 to October 11 at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. The show features roughly a dozen works, combining paintings, drawings and sculptural installations depicting the natural, cosmic and prehistoric worlds and the various creatures that inhabit them.
The name of the exhibit prompts contemplation; Houle herself isn’t sure just how we came to be — are we the product of space eggs? — but she urges viewers to explore their beliefs on the matter.
“I’m drawn to our idea of space and our place within it,” said Houle, “thinking about deeper time and where we begin, where our story is.”
All told, the exhibit blends “the primitive and the personal,” providing a closer look at the world and human connection with it, with each other and with animals; ultimately it contemplates “the whole thing we’re involved in here.”
In exploring that, Houle weaves together representations of the prehistoric, the natural and the cosmic: There are close-ups of human hands touching flowers, or simultaneously contrasted and blended with verdant and earthy backdrops; pixilated, willowy, dark and light explorations of what could be outer space, the sun, the ground or tree canopies, and slightly abstracted renderings of camera trap photos.
Beginning in 2014, Houle set up camera traps aimed at three animal holes in the woods by her house; since then, the lens has captured thousands of images, including a mother fox with six kits, “frenetic” chipmunks, raccoons and “coyotes slinking through with confidence,” as she explained.