Cholla's art proves to be by a… horse of a different color

His solo show in Venice, the first outside US

Venice, 23 February 2009 -- Though only twenty-three, his artwork has been described as having the "fire of Pollock". Yet what makes the description intriguing is that the artist is Cholla, a mustang-quarterhorse mix who lives in Nevada and paints by holding the brush in his mouth.

Cholla's paintings have been featured in art exhibits from San Francisco to New York and, now, overseas. From 24 April to 15 June 2009, 30 watercolours by Cholla will be exclusively shown in Venice at the Giudecca 795 Art Gallery, which is planning other exhibits of Cholla's works around the world. Internationally, he is already  considered one of the four most sought after animal artists; Congo the chimpanzee from the '50s whose paintings are now sold at the same sales as those of Andy Warhol, is slightly ahead.

Are you skeptical? Watch this video (part of a recent dvd which will be screened at the gallery):

The story of the international debut of "Cholla the painting horse" is quite interesting. His work was exhibited at a juried art competition in Italy called Artelaguna, and there was some consternation among the judges when they realised that Cholla was a horse. They did not expect the participation of a horse but, being that the competition was open to "anyone" without restriction and considering his prestige in the USA, the jury decided to accept his application. His watercolour received a "mention d'honneur" from the president of the Jury.

Perplexity may be the first instinctual feeling of the viewer.Yet Cholla tends to win over the public, who often appreciate his abstract designs without even knowing he is an animal. The horse's efforts are not a "stupid pet trick" - scientists and art critics are studying the case on Giudecca795 art gallery’s  request, and the renowned Italian etologist Danilo Mainardi has observed that Cholla -- a gorgeous, very intelligent, and well treated horse -- seems happy when he "paints" (probably as a way to communicate with his owner? we ask). The astonishing thing about Cholla is that he can decide if and when to paint, can pick the colors by himself, and then paint on a strong easel. Being a huge and semi-wild horse whose movements are difficult to control, the act of picking the color and painting without "destroying the scene" is already something rare. And, needless to say, he has done this without any training. A video, which will be screened in Venice at Giudecca 795, shows this process very clearly. A catalogue is being published, with comments by professor Mainardi and art critics, and a "historical introduction" by Cholla's owner, Renee Chambers who is not at all a painter but a trained classic ballerina: she recalls how Cholla's painting career began, by accident 4 years ago.  

Rosalba Giorcelli, artistic director at the Giudecca 795 Art Gallery, said she and her associate were both incredibly attracted and very curious after seeing Cholla's work at Arte Laguna. "The more we learned about Cholla, the more we were thrilled."

The main question: is this "art"? "We are too involved to tell," Giorcelli replies with a smile. "Cholla is 'natural' and instinctive by definition, his strokes are real 'primary signs', he is not imitating any artist, and… we appreciate this very much. If not art, we like to think it may be a view into the animal's unconsciousness and consciousness - it's a horse trying to communicate with us, and it's something people like. It's amazing, it's gorgeous, it's a contemporary fairy tale."

Cholla's behaviour is considered "of scientific interest" by the ethologist Mainardi, who writes about Cholla in his new book "The Intelligence of Animals": "I admired Cholla in some videos, running free, and at the easel. He picked up the brush and spontaneously began drawing his signs. His most astonishing behaviour is shown in a sequence when at first he experiences some difficulties in holding the brush with his mouth, then spontaneously begins moving it using his tongue and teeth, until he succeedes reaching  the desidered position; only at this point he starts working at his painting. Believe me, this is not a little thing. It seems to show consciousness and intention, because the horse acts without any obligation. It does it because - this is what it seems - he wants to do it. Cholla does not behave like a trained animal, and so also his owner states. Maybe it all started as a playful moment. Cholla, most of all if you compare him to many other badly kept hores, can be considered a happy horse, in his special way. And this, at least for me, is important. His story could be very similar to the painting chimp's".

The mention d'honneur states: "For the provocative nature of his gesture, which can be considered as an interesting and ironic evolution of the myth of abstract and informal art in its theoretical foundations and formal derivations, this award is possible under these circumstances in recognition of a unique art piece in an epoch of technical reproducibility."

Again, is this art? Who knows. People like Cholla's works, and creations crafted by animals are not a novelty. Congo was the first animal-artist to be 'discovered', was observed by Desmond Morris, and impressed Picasso and Dalì.

"Cholla's work should be considered as an action, a product that gives life to emotions, controlled neither by the horse nor by the observer," art critic Viviana Siviero says. "The abstract painter Pollock preferred to work on a wall or on a floor instead of at an easel, since he liked hard surfaces better. In a way, Cholla is more impressionist, at least in his habit, since he finds his inspiration in the  open air, next to his portable easel!"

Giudecca 795 Art Gallery, exclusive overseas dealer, will display 30 original watercolors by Cholla; high quality “giclee” prints are also available. All the works are for sale.

Curators at Giudecca 795 are very skeptical about the works created by elephants, and so is Mainardi, the expert etologist whom they consulted. "The so-called elephant artists look trained to repeat gestures with their flexible trunks, and may not be as free as Cholla," they said.

Part of the exhibited works can be seen on our website.

Some originals will be shown on preview at ArtFair in Open City (Art-O'), Palazzo dei Congressi, Roma Eur, 3-5 April 2009, in Giudecca795's stand 41 "Atrio dell'Arte".

Another source of information:


Special hotel fares -- to be published shortly --  from 24 April to 15 June 2009  on the occasion of the Giudecca 795 Art Gallery's exhibit "Cholla the painting horse" will be available at Molino Stucky Hilton Venice Hotel