"WAS WILD KINGDOM THIS SICK?" Childhood memories of seals skittering across ice, gorillas cradling their young, and jolly polar bears tossing fish into their mouths disappear under the sensational assault of today's snuff-film nature documentaries. Nowadays you'd be hard pressed to find anything that would be rated less than PG-13 if humans were performing the actions: murder, mayhem, raw flesh, sex.

However, this is a case where real life and the needs of ratings-hungry television producers dovetail nicely. Animals, at least the meat-eating varieties, aren't so cute and lovable when they're doing the kinds of things they generally do: finding food, having sex, and, if they're monkeys, perpetually masturbating and throwing poop (though that hasn't made it to TV yet).

A whole order of grisly behavior is being neglected, though: the creepy, crawly, and completely uncuddly world of insects. Fortunately, Catherine Chalmers is on the job. Chalmers' reputation was largely made by Food Chain (1994-96), a series of photographs she made using insects, arachnids, and reptiles she'd raised herself in her New York loft, attempting to represent in art what happens in nature. She posed her wards on a large white Formica surface that angles up 90 degrees in back, simulating the cornerless fields fashion photographers make using vast sheets of white paper; the creatures were grouped according to their position in the food chain. After the event she was looking for took place, Chalmers edited her photographs down to a spare sequence of images, just enough to adequately depict the event.

The sequence starts with an innocent tomato being worked over by a passel of ravenous caterpillars. The tomato, with no means of defense, is soon reduced to shreds and gore--um, tomato juice. Next, a praying mantis is paired with one of the caterpillars. According to Chalmers, the caterpillar sometimes wins this matchup, but this time, the mantis gets her dinner. As she opens the caterpillar's body, its see-through digestive tract reveals a lovely tomato sausage, bringing us back to the beginning of the chain. A tarantula then engulfs the praying mantis, its pounce so fast that we see only the aftermath.

There's a lot of mantis death in this show. Along the back wall at CoCA is Sex (1995), seven C-prints depicting one possible outcome of praying mantis sex--while still coupled, the mounted female twists around, gets the male's head in her long forelegs, and snaps it off, before consuming the rest of him. In the end, all that's left of the male mantis are a couple of leg segments.

The next sequence is an alternative ending to Food Chain: standing in for the tarantula, a tree frog gobbles the mantis, after the mantis has wandered onto the top of the frog's head. Then comes the real grossfest: Pinkies (1995-1997), a sequence following newborn pinkies--the pet store trade name for tiny, hairless, blind baby mice--from birth to death, the latter courtesy of a frog and a snake. All this eating can become repetitive, which is my guess why Chalmers' work has shifted gears over the last two years.

Her home menagerie has been pared back: instead of raising all manner of flora and fauna, she's concentrating on cockroaches, which she buys in bulk and cages in her apartment. Gone too is the neutral white background. The science-experiment air of the earlier work is replaced by a goofily contextual setting: a doll house. The common domestic cockroach no longer exists in nature, according to Chalmers. Its habitat is the city. Chalmers' first cockroach series, Roaches (1997-99), plays on our fears of the disgusting brown bugs. Looking larger than life in their miniature settings, the roaches make themselves comfortable in a stand-in for our homes. A second series, Imposters, places roaches in an unnatural habitat, for them: flowers. Painting and flocking her roaches to look like ladybugs and other benign-seeming insects, Chalmers tries to warm our hearts to the creatures. This is cute work, but it lacks the strange mix of horror and banality that informs her earlier, nastier stuff.

Creating artificial settings for natural events, Chalmers invokes the histories of zoology and biology, insisting on her neutrality as she manipulates situations. It's a great, vaguely sick game whose themes resonate widely, invoking all sorts of human interventions in nature. And, face it, it's also a great snuff film.

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