Monkeying around: Chimp art sends mixed message

As a few observant writers remarked after the Columbia disaster a few weeks back, space travel has become mundane, dropped from the radar screens of the public’s attention and imagination.
When people thought of space travel, they thought of the space age before they thought of the space program– the former being a historical/cultural melange of Kennedy-era frontier idealism and sci-fi B movies, of nuclear reactor-powered cars and flying saucers– the latter being the semi-regular flights nobody noticed anymore.
The Columbia disaster only highlighted this fact, as, for older Americans, the tragedy reminded them of a time when the space program was a big deal. For younger Americans, it seemed like a tragedy out of place and time– and a distraction. Iraq and Palestine are now, Americans in space suits are then.  
This is the odd context in which Reba Peck finds herself as she unveils her new exhibit at the McGuffey Art Center this month. In the early days of the space program, before the US was comfortable sending astronauts into space, chimps were trained and sent in advance of Sheppard, Glenn, and the rest of the space cowboys.
“Cosmic Chimps,” the 10-painting series on display at the McGuffey, borrows imagery from newly declassified photos documenting the early chimp-centric days of the space program. In keeping with the national confusion over all things space-ly, Peck’s chimps also present a bit of a mixed message.
To contemporary eyes, these images really are odd and right in keeping with scenes from the space age. With a distinctive hard-edged style that seems to mimic comic book pen and ink as well as chalk drawing, Peck’s paintings play up the kitschy imagery. Her paintings are populated with scientists’ thick hairy arms poking out of the short sleeves of their white lab coats.
There are stethoscopes and electrodes and chimps in flight suits wearing oxygen masks, shut up in space capsules. Peck even seems to borrow from the goofy sci-fi cinema of the time, as she fills the spaces around her chimps and dark-haired, anonymous scientists with context-less graphs, numbers, and short paragraphs of science-speak in courier font, like a montage from one of those B sci-fi pictures. And, of course, Peck’s trademark backgrounds are filled with bright, glowing, look-at-me colors, which only highlight the cartoonish quality of the images.
Peck herself doesn’t seem completely comfortable with the kitschy humor, however. The secondary material she’s posted around the gallery says little about the artwork but plenty about this period in the space program. It all reads like outtakes from an overly earnest documentary which hasn’t decided whether to celebrate the chimps for their heroism or cast the space program as an animal-abusing industry on a par with the cosmetics industry. 
This tone finds a reflection in just one particular painting on hand, Peck’s “nature-of-the-beast,” which depicts an uncomfortable-looking chimp covered with electrodes, strapped down, and seeming to writhe. It’s an uneasy marriage– this combination of kitschy imagery and edu-tainment impulse– and a bad case of mixed signals. This time out, Peck’s material got the better of her.

At the McGuffey Art Center, Reba Peck’s “Cosmic Chimps” are on view through March 2. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.

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