Side Image: 

David Bigelow (American, b. 1949), The Spy, 1981, etching, 26 x 32 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
David Bigelow

David Bigelow is a graphic artist who is known for the humorous quality of his work. He has said, "Humor in itself definitely is not a reflection on objective quality. People know what a cartoon is, a drawing which has as its only function to support the joke. But some work is very different from cartooning; even if you don't get the joke there still is a good piece of work, a good composition." He often uses unexpected subjects as substitutes for people to make funny or pointed commentary. He was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts degrees in printmaking and drawing from the University of Michigan. He lives in Ozark, Missouri. His wife, Marcia, applies watercolor to parts of his prints, such as the carrots and leaves in The Spy

Key Ideas

• Alteration of appearance as a means of being included
• Differences and similarities among members of groups
• Depiction of animals to convey human motivations and behavior
• Employment of humor in art to tell a story or make a pointed observation

Discussion Questions

• Have you ever wondered about the differences between rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses? Artist David Bigelow has probed that question in an amusing analysis. What are some qualities he is suggesting here?
• Everyone feels like an outsider at times. What are some things people do to try to join or be part of a group?
• What are some ways that individuals become celebrities? How are they treated differently from others?
• The title of this piece is integral to the understanding of it. What might be some reasons the hippo is called a spy?
• There is a difference between humorous art and cartoons, which have as their primary function to support a joke. Why might the artist use humor to approach serious topics such as difference or group belonging?

Vocabulary
  • adobe a brick or building material of sun-dried earth and straw, commonly used in areas with little rainfall
  • celebrity a famous or well-known person
  • infiltrate gain access furtively and gradually, especially to acquire secret information
  • sentry a guard stationed at a place to prevent the passage of unauthorized persons
  • trait a distinguishing characteristic or quality
  • wily skilled at gaining an advantage, especially through trickery or deviousness

What's Going on Here? Stories in Art

What a lot of rhinos! As many as twenty-one rhinoceroses are standing in a plaza surrounded by adobe walls not far from a big city—settings that are very different from the grassland territories of wild rhinos. Admirers or guardians crowd around an important character being transported, like a celebrity, in a basket hauled by two harnessed fellows. Other rhinos are lined up in the back, resembling sentries. One sly character seems to have infiltrated the group by wearing a clever disguise. With a couple of ordinary orange carrots taped onto its nose, this wily hippopotamus is hiding in plain sight as part of the rhino crowd.

Narrow borders, somewhat like filmstrips, edge the top and bottom of the picture. In the lower border a comparable story is played out, in which a rhinoceros (who seems to have a star at the end of his horn) is being carried in a basket, surrounded by a group that includes an outsider in a carrot-horn disguise. In the border at top, a “special” rhino is also being transported surrounded by other rhinos, this time in a car that is proceeding down a street lined with crowds held back by barricades. Behind the crowds are characters wearing sunglasses and carrying walkie-talkies who seem to be staking out the park and countryside, perhaps looking for hippos in disguise!

Close looking reveals that these animals are really not all the same. Some have one very big horn and another smaller horn; some have two horns that are not quite so large; and others have only one horn. The rhinos display the kinds of variation that exist among the five different species of rhinoceroses in nature. Like most groups of natural beings, there are many similarities, some group differences, and various individual differences. Even though the hippo has smaller ears and needs carrots to look like the horned animals, he shares many traits with the rhinos. The title of the print, The Spy, hints at possible reasons why someone might disguise their appearance to be part of a group. These animal characters have been amusingly drawn by the artist to depict behaviors often exhibited by humans.

Each part of this etching has been shaped with carefully drawn lines and cross-hatching. Shadows of horns, of animals standing near the wall, or of buildings against each other are created with parallel and hatched lines. The character with the carrot horns has a concave cheek and space under his nostrils, and a convex jaw and shoulder, details that are revealed through the quantity of fine lines. White spaces in the paper suggest the glare of the sun reflected off the ground and the backs of the animals.