Joseph Havel, Provence, 2021, cardboard and oil stick on birch plywood, 80 × 60". From the series “Floor Plans,” 2021–22.

Joseph Havel, Provence, 2021, cardboard and oil stick on birch plywood, 80 × 60". From the series “Floor Plans,” 2021–22.

Joseph Havel

During the pandemic lockdown, Joseph Havel’s studio companion was an African gray parrot named Hannah. Apparently, Hannah played a significant role in the completion of a project, conceived by the artist in 2017, that used cardboard boxes. Consistent with past bodies of work, Havel started this group of sculptures and collages for “Parrot Architecture,” exhibited at Dallas Contemporary, by remaining alert to the objects in his immediate environment—i.e., likely candidates for transfiguration. Havel took advantage of the excess paper packaging that accumulated in his home as online shopping replaced actual trips to the mall. An important part of his creative process, however, involved Hannah’s continual pecking, shredding, and clawing at what appeared to her as suitable matter for nest building, or what she saw as a bit of avian fun. The artist thoughtfully considered the bird’s predilections and began to see his pet as something more than a welcome presence.

This show was a product of interspecies collaboration: Havel employed the boxes that Hannah “scarred” to fashion a series of towers that, to his mind, resembled high-rise birdhouses. Some of these constructions were bronzed, with the result that the teetering edifices looked like tanned, derelict pencil skyscrapers. The various “buildings” in “Parrot Architecture” were aptly titled Highrise (1–3), 2020; Bird House (1–2), 2021–22; and Broke Palace (1–2), 2022, the names nodding to the use that Hannah may have made of them. Titles of other sculptures on view here—Rumbled, Tumbled, and Crumbled, all 2022—registered a more ironic description of the man/bird studio practice: a darker, possibly apocalyptic vision. A group of large collages, appropriately named “Floor Plans,” 2021–22, crafted from flayed cardboard boxes and oil stick mounted on wood, accompanied the habitats. All were clearly marked by Hannah’s beak and claws, such that the literalization of these works as actual blueprints seemed deliciously more absurd and compelling. In addition to this substantial presentation, a second exhibition by the artist at Dallas’s Talley Dunn Gallery—“Flight Paths and Floor Plans”—featured even more of his human/avian collaborations.

The explicit reference to architecture in Havel’s exhibitions and the circumstances of the works’ fabrication recalls a distinction made by Karl Marx between the marvelous construction by bees of their hives and the efforts of a possibly mediocre human architect: “But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Marx is ranking our cognitive capacities above the instinctual yet stunning behaviors of other animals. As elaborate and awe-inspiring as the bees’ labors are, they are not equivalent to architecture, at least not in the sense that it is practiced by Homo sapiens. What’s missing for the bees, we are told, is a cognitive process analogous to our native ability to envision a course of action. That quaint yet deplorable nineteenth-century view of humanity’s dominance, however, is scientifically questionable. This is not how interspecies interaction is viewed by Havel, or for that matter by contemporary scientists or environmental activists.

For the artist, the serendipitous intensive engagement with his pet conjures the transcendent—its qualities are not exhausted by the ennobling of common matter. Something more world encompassing than distressed materiality is at stake. Havel speaks of grave ecological disaster, of mass extinctions, owing to the destruction of natural habitats. His voice therefore resonates with that of philosophers and eco-warriors, who argue that the moral authority of our species is founded on a contract of mutuality with the entire biosphere.

Havel’s wicked sense of humor and his deep concern for the planet cannot forestall questions about interspecies performance. Could his project invite us to consider larger questions about animal intelligence? How might this human/nonhuman collaboration alter our view of artistic intention? If Hannah is more than a beloved (yet surely exotic) tool for creating Havel’s work, what kind of intelligence is made available to the artist and the viewer? These and other questions are meant to suggest that Havel’s endeavors are merely scratching the surface and deserve to be continued. Of the many examples of interspecies performance in contemporary art, precious few exist where the nonhuman actor could blurt out, “It’s art if I say it is.”