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If you're an animal lover, Frank Noelker's photographs are harrowing. There's nothing grisly depicted in them, no slaughterhouse exposé or safari aftermath; no, the horror is generated from within the viewer. Noelker visited more than 300 zoos to create his portrait photographs of animals in their display settings. Individually, the photos are beautifully composed. But view an aggregation of Noelker's images, and the realization dawns within you that each scene is false. That hippo shouldn't be in a sterile concrete room painted a sickly green, it should be eyeballs-deep in a river; that giraffe should not be standing against a painted backdrop of sky and trees, it should be wandering an endless savannah; the gorilla backed against a featureless white wall should be hidden in dense vegetation. Noelker is not indicting zoos — they serve a valuable conservation and educational purpose — he's indicting all of humanity. We have collectively caused all of these creatures to be plucked from their natural state and forced into captivity for their continued survival. We paint the false trees and the flat skylines to ameliorate our own guilt about their new living conditions — does a hippo care what color the walls are? — and then these elements become common enough that we don't see how poorly we're treating the animals. Zoos have made vast improvements in exhibitions and quality of life for their charges, but the substitutes are never going to take the place of natural habitat — that rests on all of us. Of Animals: Photographs by Frank Noelker is a powerful, beautiful exhibit, and it will wrack you — but it can also inspire you. Of Animals opens with a free public reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, June 12, at the Sheldon Art Galleries (3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.thesheldon.org). The exhibition remains up through Saturday, September 5, and regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday.
Tuesdays-Saturdays. Starts: June 12. Continues through Sept. 5, 2009

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