Beyond Beasts at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) is really two shows in one. For the many fans of Benh Zeitlin's acclaimed film Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is an inside look at the homespun locally shot movie that received four Oscar nominations. A floor-to-ceiling spectacle, it includes videos showing how Beasts was made by Zeitlin's Court 13 collective, some earlier short films and various props. But there also is a significant visual art story here because the "look" of Beasts is mostly the work of Zeitlin's sister, Eliza, whose art will be familiar to anyone who saw New Orleans Airlift's 2011-2012 Music Box installation of musical shanties, for which she built the first and biggest musical structure. Both projects featured some of the same artists and an organic localized aesthetic that is not only a St. Claude arts district undercurrent but also coincidentally echoes elements of Elizabeth Shannon's and Robert Tannen's early CAC exhibitions years ago.
Eliza Zeitlin's influence also might have inspired other aspects of the film. Some moviegoers professed shock at the way the characters in Beasts lived in shanties cobbled from found materials, yet when Benh was asked if he really knew "anyone who lives like that," he said, "Yes, my sister." Like Hushpuppy in Beasts, Eliza prefers living in primitive spaces she shares with her menagerie of critters. That love of animals also explains her large and enigmatic stand-alone sculpture in the corner window gallery — actually a metal found-object assemblage cobbled from auto parts and inspired by her beloved cat who was killed by a speeding motorist. Eloquently crafted into a fearsome feline protector deity, it looks ready to pounce on the cars whizzing by outside. In the Zeitlin siblings' worldview, all things appear animated by an intelligent inner spirit that we may not always understand but which their efforts bring to life in any number of unexpected and brilliantly executed ways. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT