Tuesday, October 27, 2009
By Tom Wachunas
Somewhere around the age of five or six years I made my first real paintings (watercolors) on pieces of unprimed corrugated cardboard. They were images of dinosaurs and birds copied from encyclopedias. For several years I was more than casually interested in these creatures. I read everything I could get my hands on about them. I shared my findings in great detail as my family listened with respectful if not begrudging interest during many evening meals. Honestly, I was sure that there was a mysterious kinship between extinct reptiles and the feathered critters that swarmed around the redwood birdfeeder that my father so lovingly maintained. He even secured an Audubon Society membership for me by the time I reached fourth grade. Imagine my delight in finding out many years later that my juvenile intuition was validated when the scientific community confirmed once and for all that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs.
That childhood passion eventually blossomed into more serious studies of paleontology (it nearly became my college major), ornithology, and zoology. Even though I ceased, for the most part, making pictures of animals long ago, I’ve always nurtured a deep appreciation for wildlife artists and animal-world illustrators of all kinds.
So it is with some degree of unabashedly sentimental intentions that I curated “Animal Instincts” at Gallery 6000. Still, in as much as the show is an homage (and a fairly restricted one at that) to enjoyment of the animal kingdom, it is also most certainly a celebration of four notably uncomplicated local talents who clearly have a passion for their subjects. By ‘uncomplicated’ I mean unpretentious, and that the art here is refreshingly straightforward without being insipid. There are no vexing mysteries to unravel, no arcane or cryptic meanings to decipher, no visual angst with which the artists can mercilessly elicit our dumbfounded silence, as so much postmodernist art (in the name of profundity and originality) is apt to do. In short, what you see is what you get, not what you guess.
If horses can be said to have a topography, Kelli Swan could rightfully be called their master cartographer. Her pencil drawings of horses are marvelously rich in tonal variations and equally riveting for their precision of detail. You can almost see the animals’ muscles ripple beneath their velvety coats. And while Swan’s portrayals here are largely in the context of horses submitting to human games, they nonetheless project a loving respect for, and fascination with, wild equine dignity.
The oil paintings by Sue Steiner are simple gems of fluid color and gestural brushwork. Though small in scale, they imbue their subjects – pets and farm animals- with an expressive energy that is gently heroic. The intriguing head of the cat in “Wild Thing” fills the picture frame with an atmospheric meditation on things that surely only cats can see.
Vicki Boatright, who signs her work BZTAT (after a favorite cat), paints her electrifying images of pets and domesticated animals in acrylic on particle board. The board provides a tactile backdrop that is visually decorative as well as significant on a conceptual plane. There is a resultant air of immediacy in these neon-bright images that, despite their often whimsical folk stylings, project all the social urgency of urban graffiti on boarded-up buildings. Ebullient, surely, yet they can also be distinctly haunting, as in “Anonymous.” Here, an alarmed cat takes on iconic presence, stripped down to a kind of logo that is symbolic of Boatright’s stated concern for the awareness and welfare of all animals, including feral feline populations.
Rounding out the show are the spectacular – in every sense of the word – photographs by Stephen McNulty. He’s a conservation photographer whose zeal for the wonders of nature has taken him to places as far-flung as, among others, the Alaskan backcountry and jungles of the Amazon. His dazzling UltraChrome Giclee prints are sumptuous evidence of a sharp eye for composition, and surely the necessary patience in choosing to “capture” the most impacting scenes. “On Resplendent Wings, 2005” is a breathtaking vision of pure natural drama. In startlingly sharp focus, a Bald Eagle soars intently along frothy, sparkling surf. All of McNulty’s photographs are jubilant records of utterly beautiful moments in places many of us only dream about.
That’s one mark of genuinely compelling art – its capacity to inspire viewers to witness or re-live a unique moment, or to reconsider a truth of our world. And thus this exhibition simply asks us to savor animals for what they are – thrilling denizens of Creation that bring joy to our existence.
Photo: “Predatory Instincts” by Vicki Boatright, acrylic, on view in “Animal Instincts” through November 18 at Gallery 6000, located in the dining room of the University Center at Kent State University Stark campus, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Best viewing times are Monday-Friday, 8am to 11am, or 1:30pm to 4:30pm. It is highly recommended to first call (330) 244-3300 to confirm availability for viewing