Downtown exhibits extol our furred friends

A detail of Jan Harrison's "Blue Water Lion".

In KMOCA’s “Other Than Human” exhibition, which opened last Saturday and is on view through this month, animals are portrayed not so much as others but, in keeping with the way humans have thought about animals for untold millennia, as mysterious or comic aspects of ourselves. The tone ranges from fey to sublime, with Susan Siegel’s luscious, rococo portraits of sheep, cows and goats and Chris Harvey’s small-scale, sign-like paintings of variations of antlered heads falling into the first category and Jan Harrison’s human-size pastel portraits of cats and primates, whose eyes glimmer at us from atmospheric depths, falling into the latter category.

Harrison’s work explores origins. Her large primate heads, part of the “Corridor” series — a term that relates both to the eco-passageways into which much of the world’s wildlife is being squeezed as well as a cloistered psychological space — seem to be seeing more of us than we do of them. They gaze at us out of a velvety darkness, the details of their fine, bristling fur and rounded faces barely visible, creatures of ancient memory tangibly, palpably present, whose eyes seem to follow us as we move past. The frontal composition and fine scrolls of whiskers drawn in gold ink suggest a Byzantine icon, while the soft atmosphere suggested by the smudged veils of color is naturalistic: it’s the combination of the two that perhaps imbues the creatures with their uncanny presence. Harrison’s single humanoid piece — a self-portrait — highlights the simian features of the human face, hinting at a beast-like ambience which, one fancies, might be the way animals perceive humans.

At last Saturday’s opening, Harrison, who has exhibited her work all over the world (including recent shows in galleries inBarcelonaandAustralia), stood in front of her large portrait of a cat. Animal effigy in hand (a bees’ wax sculpture of a cat head) she began to speak in “animal tongues” — speech that had the cadence of an actual language but was utterly unintelligible. Afterward she took questions from the audience, declining to translate her responses; one extrapolated the meaning from her gestures and tone. The questions included: are you fixed (eliciting a coy response)? What do you long for (the artist looked to the sky and hugged her body with her hands)? What do you smell? Where do you hang out?

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The artist said her strange speech was entirely unpremeditated and derived from her subconscious, in communication with some kind of animal spirit. However, the artist insisted her strange speech was entirely unpremeditated and derived from her subconscious, in communication with some kind of animal spirit. In fact, she views herself not as a performance artist but as a medium and said she was first inspired to speak in animal tongues following a powerful dream she had in 1979, in which she touched a medallion she was wearing to an identical one worn by a bird together and the bird began to speak. She believes her speech channels the spirit inherent in her images (one always accompanies the other), which emerge mysteriously from the pastel colors she applies to a piece of paper laid on the floor. “I’m sitting in the middle of them and I rub and caress the surface with my hands,” she said. “As I rub the beings emerge.”

Harrison, who lives in Kingston with her husband, Alan Baer, an architect — the couple have adopted four stray cats — said ever since she was a young child growing up in south Florida she has had an intense connection with animals. “I would commune with the cats, dogs, birds, lizards and spiders,” she said. “My whole childhood was steeped in animals. They were really my family.” After earning her MFA she was a print maker but gradually shifted into using charcoals and pastels.

Jan Harrison. (Lynn Woods)

She has so far made 80 images in the Corridor series. Harrison is also represented in the upcoming show at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, Dear Mother Nature, which opens later this month.

The noble cow

Siegel’s formal portraits of bovines in 18th-century clothing — tightly tied bodices and full gowns, waist coats and knickers — often with a pet dog in tow, could be the stuff of kitsch, were it not for their stunning execution. The dignified figures, usually in pairs, stand in a summery landscape, its sun-kissed, diaphanous atmosphere and plant life succulently suggested by thin, transparent glazes of paint.

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