Walking into Cerulean Arts Gallery this past weekend I was reminded of a little ditty from my childhood, “All the animals in the zoo are jumping up and down for you!” The exhibition before my eyes is “Menagerie”. It includes artworks by Phillipa Beardsley, Molly Sanger Carpenter, Matthew Courtney, Millicent Krouse, Dan Miller, Kerry Sacco, and Dori Spector. And “menagerie” is a perfect word for this group. It includes animal subjects that would be considered exotic or domestic, whimsical, and heartwarming. Moreover, every piece in this group is in an empathetic way and in a variety of styles.
Phillipa Beardsley has contributed a series of mixed media works on wood. The subjectmatter is cats— singularly and in pairs. And from the look and informality of materials these seem to
be cats that she is familiar with. In Hiding Spot, the image from the post card, the silhouette of a black cat is covered in layers of color in yellow and green, as well as strokes of dark brown, that obfuscates the cat that resembles a thicket. The black of the cat creates a hole in the lighter greens while the cat’s head is scraped into the black of the cat’s body moving it from “hole” to a “figure”. In Night Cats Beardsley uses a similar technique, that is scraping in outlines in layers of paint. Here the paint is dark—black, blues, violets. The entire body of one cat is centered and prominent; a second cat is represented
by a more delineated head. Plantlike shapes that are also scraped in at the bottom assist in creating a place, a space, while the layers of murky color suggest the night. In both of these artworks the cats are alert. A more relaxed pose is seen in Buttercup. A black and white cat with its tail swirled and extended into the bottom looks out to us. The cat seems to float on a gray background. White outlines the cat like an aura and other white shapes are sprinkled throughout the composition. Yellow dabs polka-dot the whole composition. These actually push back the cat and tied to the ground. In many ways I think of this as “Cat in Space”, perhaps the constellation Felis, with which it has certain similarities.
Cats figured into several other artists works as subject—some as a small player as in Dori Spector’s Mom, Baby, and Cat; some as lead as in Molly Sanger Carpenter’s Le Chat Bleu.
Mom, Baby, and Cat and Pug Love by Dori Spector are a pair of mixed media works that include human interaction. Done in an Art Nouveau style, in Mom, Baby, and Cat a mother and child cuddle under a bed of highly decorated covers and pillows while in Pug Love a woman kisses her pet with floral patterns creating shapes that constitute her shape and the environ. These are highly decorative and sensitive artworks that characterize people’s relationship to their pets and pets relationship to people. In Mom, Baby, and Cat, the cat stands as a sentinel over a mom and her baby. In Pug Love, the composition rotates around the line-drawn faces of the woman and the dog underscoring the unity of the two. Other prints by Dori Spector are of dogs done in a color-etching process. In the charming Beagle and Butterfly, a largely black and white print has the introduction of a dull green along the bottom to create the ground. The young dog has an alertness due to its uplifted face and
tail. The dog looks to a large butterfly that is just over its nose. In French Bulldog the red sweater of the dog is set off by the green of the background. In this the bulldog appears to be looking out past any viewer making the bulldog an object of the viewer’s appreciation rather than an interactive portrait. Moreover, there is a fogginess to the artwork that transforms this depiction from present to remembered.
Molly Sanger Carpenter has many pieces in this exhibition. All extraordinary, all elegant, all
treasures, they are dense enough to be called sculptures but are also wall-hung and made to be perceived as paintings. With gold-painted carved frames, glass mosaic insets, and a representation of an animal under glass (or is it in reverse glass painting), these works glow with their own light. Separately they are icons telling a story, taking each of these pictures from portrait to symbol. In Pink Squirrel a haloed squirrel with a butterfly on its head sits on a carved tree branch. A glass-patterned sky surrounds the squirrel and breaks into the tree to make branches. Within the frame a small head, like a goddess, looks down. I wonder if this face could be that of the artist. Combined, there are several meanings. Squirrels are symbols of playfulness and activity, as well as preparedness in life. They can also represent focused energy. Butterflies are symbols of life, renewal, endurance, change, and hope. If this is the head of the artist, she may be revealing to us something about her own practice. If this is the head of a “goddess” this may be a type of Sacred Seeing, a connection of humanity to Nature. Two of Carpenter’s artworks, Moonlight Serenade and Rub a Dub Dub, Lab in a Tub have even greater inventions of the imagination. Moonlight Serenade features a bear in a canoe yelling, or perhaps singing, out into the night. The bear here is accompanied by four frogs—one in each corner—so it is likely a sing-along with the bear as the featured vocalist. In Rub a Dub, a Labrador Retriever, curved on his back splashes away in a boat-shaped tub. And not to exclude underwater animals, Carpenter has Spotted Pigfish which includes seahorses, shells, and other aquatic themes.
Camels are the subject for Matthew Courtney’s ceramic pieces. But these are not zoological,
rather they are based on ceramic camels made in the Tang dynasty—which makes them equally akin to Art History. In Tang Dynasty Camel Butt a red clay, stylized camel stands balanced on four feet, rearing its head and ferociously exposing its teeth while a second, smaller camel head issues from its hindquarters. White, green, and yellow glaze form drips as though the piece was shot with blobs of glaze material. Tri Colored Tang Dynasty Push Me Pull You #8 finds its compositional origins in Tang Dynasty Camel Butt. Here, one camel growing another camel is now a two-headed camel. Also made of clay and glaze, the white body with the drippy glaze becomes more graceful and sensuous. The heads feel more like knobs and the dense up-an-down middle makes me see this as a fanciful harp. Placing Tri Colored Tang Dynasty Push Me Pull You #8 with its elongated, horizontal quality on a brownish shelf brings to mind a sconce with melting candles. Moving along with this analogy I come to Tri Colored Tang Dynasty Push Me Pull You #7, a candelabra of camel heads. It is fascinating to see Courtney’s developments using the single motif of camel ceramics from the Tang dynasty. And I suspect that, like his Tang predecessors, he has used both mold and hand built elements in making these. But his choice of glaze work along with this merging of forms makes these very Contemporary. This is very noticeable in his un-camel piece, Tang Dynasty Penguin. Like the camels this penguin is stylized, here shaped more like a jug. Small details like its opened beak and protruding feet add animation while the glazes add to its pleasure.
Another colorful artwork is the hand-colored woodblock print by Millicent Krouse called Paisley Sheep. Long strands of color and pattern end in straggly lines. Black legs and face and ears contrast against the pastel and white hues. Dense with texture and playful patterns, it is whimsical! Porcupine, another large woodblock print shows both its name and every prickly needle of spines of the porcupine’s body. The contrast of dense black and highlighted white constructs a very dimensional body, but rather than inviting pets invites recoils. The porcupine stands on its outlined name like a scribbled caricature cute enough to be included in a child’s room. Nesting Duck seems to combine techniques from both Paisley Sheep and Porcupine. A hand-colored woodblock print, it is more naturalistic in color than Paisley Sheep yet as sensitive and inventive in conveying appearance as Porcupine.
Woodblock print is also the process employed by Dan Miller for his artworks of birds and butterflies. Journey is a comical representation of a caterpillar on a thin branch. As with all of Miller’s prints, he begins by printing a slab of grained wood. This grain, with its knots and
areas of various densities, becomes the environ and sometimes even the details to the figure. In Moment of Color the unevenness the shape of the wood-patterned ground assists in seeing the butterfly as caught in a moment of balancing above a flower. The yellow color of Morning Light, along with the two spots like double suns at either end of the page, not only lights the owl couple but
expresses movement of time. The slight tilt to the bodies of the owls along with the personification of their faces make the owls into persona and our viewing as a familiar relationship. Forest Sounds, another woodblock print featuring a bird, is more voyeuristic. There are two artworks that have a peregrine: one is Peregrine Poem, the other is Forrest Sounds. Peregrine Poem is an ode to this hawk that has the bird looking directly out and even having the bird haloed. In Forrest Sounds the bird’s head is turned away from us and the bird is positioned to make the bottom edge its platform. An oblong circle on the alternate side from the bird, in a brownish orange, balances the composition and alludes to a target, fitting for a bird of prey.
Kerry Sacco has also contributed some wonderful depictions of birds, very different from raptors, namely chickens. These paintings demonstrate close observation of the chicken’s head. The background is abstracted and in colors supporting the import of the chicken. Placing the three together creates glimpses of the movement of a chicken. This Just In has the chicken in a profile view mid-cluck while Determination shows an opposite profile with beak closed. My favorite, a very funny depiction, is Heyyy!!. A frontal view, this chicken, set at a diagonal on the canvas, is positioned with its mouth open to get our attention.
Sacco moves from the very small chicken to a very large animal, elephants.
Side by Side shows a mother and baby elephant walking directly at us. Another mother and child elephant portrait is Learning to Lead. These oil paintings are fresh in color and in emotion appearing to be en plein air.
After several looks around Menagerie, I come away thinking about Rachel Field’s poem Animal Fair which starts,
“If I had a hundred dollars to spend,
Or maybe a little more,
I’d hurry as fast as my legs would go
Straight to the animal store…
I’d buy as many as rolled an eye,
Or wagged a tail at me!”
And that is exactly how I feel looking at these delightful and accomplished works.
Menagerie is on view at Cerulean Arts Gallery at 1355 Ridge Avenue through November 24th. Individual pieces from this exhibition can be seen at https://ceruleanarts.com/pages/menagerie . And an Artist Talk in conjunction with this exhibition was on Saturday, November 16th and can be viewed below.