Nevada horse chosen to exhibit artwork in Italy

By Sandra Chereb

RENO, Nev. – His artwork has been described as having the “fire of Pollock” and the “fixed gaze of Resnick.”

Now, a Reno artist will make his international debut, having been invited to exhibit his work in a juried art competition in Italy.

He won’t, however, be going abroad to bask in the aura of great Italian masters. Instead, this artist will remain at home, contemplating his next masterpiece while gnawing on his paintbrushes – between mouthfuls of hay.

Cholla is a mustang-quarter horse mix whose paintings have been exhibited from San Francisco to New York – and now overseas.

His creation, “The Big Red Buck,” was selected for exhibition in the 3rd International Art Prize Arte Laguna, Oct. 18-Nov. 2, in Mogliano Veneto, Italy.

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    More than 3,000 artworks in painting, sculpture and photography were entered. In painting, there were 1,770 from artists around the world.

    The international contest organized by the Italian cultural association MoCA in collaboration with Arte Laguna aims to promote contemporary art.

    Competition officials acknowledge there was some consternation among the judges when they realized Cholla was of the equine species.

    “We have to admit that we did not expect the application of a horse,” Arte Laguna spokeswoman Cristina Del Favero said.

    “At first we were very perplexed, but we subsequently looked for more information about Cholla on the Web and the jury decided to accept his application by considering his prestige in the USA,” she said.

    While Cholla was not eligible to win any cash prizes, “he obtained a special mention,” Del Favero said.

    Viviana Siviero, president of the four-member jury, said she was suspicious of the entry when she was informed Cholla was a horse.

    “I was at first doubtful and incredulous,” Siviero said, adding she researched Cholla to ensure his authenticity.

    “Sincerely, some of the jurors were perplexed or even angry. Some others were amused about it,” Siviero said.

    Cholla is not the first animal in the art world, Siviero said, and added he was taken seriously.

    Such animal artists, she said, “are not to be considered some sort of gossip, but an attempt to reaffirm the power of the automatic and instinctual gesture, often used by the human being in order to express itself, by recovering its own animal and childish nature.”

    Cholla’s acceptance in the juried show prompted interest from another gallery in Venice, Italy, where a solo exhibit of Cholla artwork is planned for next spring.

    Rosalba Giorcelli, curator at Giudecca 795 Art Gallery, said she and her associate were curious, after seeing Cholla’s work, why he was not eligible for an award in the Arte Laguna.

    “We could not understand until we browsed the Web and found out he was … a horse!” she said in an e-mail.

    “The more we were learning about Cholla, the more we were thrilled and excited about offering a solo exhibit.”

    Renee Chambers, Cholla’s owner, says his international acclaim proves his artistic talents.

    “Yes, it’s a novelty that a horse can paint,” she said. “But it’s not about novelty anymore. It’s about his validation as an artist.”

    Cholla’s painting career began by accident, Chambers said. He’d follow her around when she’d paint the corral each year, and one day her husband, Robert, quipped, “You should get the horse to paint that fence.”

    Chambers instead tacked a piece of paper to a railing, mixed up some watercolors and handed a brush to Cholla, who gripped it in his teeth and stroked the paper.

    “He’s been painting ever since,” she said.

    If art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, then Cholla – named after a species of cacti found in the desert southwest that is pronounced CHOY-ah – certainly has a following and a growing reputation.

    John Yimin, an art lover and critic, wrote on his Web site: “The brush stroke Cholla uses to get his vision down on paper … the watercolor’s dance … and especially the fascinating completion of the works … Cholla clearly grabs me and holds me as I watch him paint with the fire of Pollock and fixed gaze of Resnick.”

    Yimin said he started his Outsider Art site “to connect to artists and build them a popular place to show their work.”

    “As for Cholla, when I first got the submission, I had to bend the rules a little because I don’t accept submissions from agents, dealers or anyone other than the artist.

    “Because I remember “Mister Ed,” I took a look and figured I’d see some dopey horse tied to a tree with a paintbrush taped to its forelock,” he said, referencing the 1960s comedy starring a talking horse.

    “Instead, even in a small frame video, I saw intelligence, purpose and a differing vision exposed to me for the first time.

    “I was and remain awed,” Yimin said.

    The 23-year-old bay has been painting for only four years, but original pieces have sold for as much as $2,200, said Chambers.

    The horse exhibited this summer during a western show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and will have a solo show at The Art Cafe in Davison, Mich., in November.

    But is work created by an animal truly art?

    “We live in a world with constantly shifting boundaries and obviously expanding definitions,” said Kurt Kohl, curator at The Art Cafe.

    “The horse is creating art on the level of a very young child,” he said. “There may not be a lot of thought behind the process, but one could also ask the same question about Pollock or De Kooning or Rothko.”

    “The action of the art is in the viewers response to it,” Kohl said. “And that’s why we decided to hang it on our walls.”

    Siviero said there was no need to search out a figure or a theme, since it would be “ridiculous to claim an intentional message of the author.”

    “Cholla’s work is to be considered as a result of an action, a product that gives life to emotions, controlled neither by the horse nor by the observer,” she said.

    Chambers shrugs off nay-sayers who may think Cholla is a gimmick.

    “It’s an innate ability he has,” she said. “He wants to paint. It’s in him.”

    “Art is an expression of intelligence and Cholla’s highly intelligent,” she said.

    “It’s not a stupid pet trick.”