Animal as Metaphor

Clark Gallery, Lincoln. MA.

(Originally published in Art New England, April 1985.)

Artists have been fascinated by animals both as nature and as symbols since the earliest paintings and scratches of animal imagery on the walls of caves. An entertaining group show at the Clark Gallery devoted to animals as metaphor featured the primitive art animal, the hidden drives animal, the whimsical animal, and other mythical beasts.

Faith Wilding’s paintings in gouache are vividly imagined dream symbols, poetic and delicate but strong. One shows an otter embracing a girl, another a man turning into a stag. Both images are surrounded by a ring of embryonic people swimming in ornamental designs. Her shapes recall the hide paintings of the Plains Indians, and her palette the earth colors and intense natural dues of the waving and pottery of the Southwest.

Leslie Sills makes spellbinding  little painted ceramic boxes. In one, dried Chinese fish seem to be struggling to swim out of thick swirls of painted waves under a sequined sky. In another box, human swimmers frolic in a swimming hole guarded by bears and overshadowed by a bid tree. These too are compelling dream images.

Linda Huey’s porcelain jars are friendly, modern versions of classical Chinese vases. They are painted with abstract, crocodile-like animals swimming through a lively, leafy landscape. Donald Dreifuss, an artist from New Zealand, made a Spirit Forest of six painted wooden posts with birds and trees or leaves. This little forest is light and airy, whimsical without being cloying.

Nick Lawrence has looked at late Picasso and at primitive art too. He uses an oil stick on latex on paper with lots of dark blue-blacks, reds, oranges – not unlike the effect children get when they cover a crayon drawing with black, then scratch off the black with a pencil. It is strangely moving. In Man with Ibex the man and the animal with wonderful horns both have the same big almond-shaped eyes.

Timothy Nichol’s strong little paintings of horses and men also refer to Picasso’s late style. His are vigorous, elemental animals, just barely under the artist-rider’s control – like art.

Frances Hamilton’s oil painting of her dog, Matty, is the most truly observed animal in the show. Standing on an Oriental rug, Matty gazes up at us with eyes filled with yearning. In Matty’s Dream, a wonderful accordion book inside a fur cover, Hamilton has imagined the dog’s dream: romantic fantasies of life alone in a wild landscape with his red-haired human mistress.

As Walt Whitman wrote,

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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