My enquiry into the representation of animals using the medium of paint was significantly influenced by a two-day symposium held at London Metropolitan University in October 2011. The symposium, titled “The Animal Gaze: Returned”, introduced me to ideas concerning studies into human and nonhuman animal interactions, ethology and ecology and the role contemporary art plays in representing animals in meaningful and productive ways in light of these developing fields.
My painting practice was previously composed of imagined landscapes and posited animals as symbols, metaphors and vehicles of spiritual significance. Following the symposium it has begun to alter radically. My research into contemporary animal studies has informed my practice in terms of what I am seeking to avoid: anthropomorphism, symbolism, religion, sentimentalism. All of these signifiers are deemed out-dated in today’s visual culture (in respect of animal representation) by contemporary philosophers and artists due to their human-centred approach.
Another aim in my practice is to depict the animals without resorting to realism, particularly in respect to natural history illustration and scientific taxonomy. I am trying to avoid such realism as I believe that photography has rendered obsolete the use of paint in the depiction of animals in a direct and accurate way. By painting animals accurately and photo-realistically, the work is limited in terms of what it is communicating to the viewer. I also agree with Gombrich’s idea that making the viewer more active in reconstituting an image makes the artwork less “odious” (Gombrich, E. 1963). In my opinion, this also makes it more productive and interesting. At the start of my investigations I was inspired by Franz Marc’s Cubist animal pictures and the way his reduced and restructured forms force the viewer to recompose the animal bodies.
In order to pursue the idea of reducing animal forms and encourage the viewer to fill in the gaps, I initially continued painting my imagined landscapes and tried to place the animals as silhouettes or outlines into the scenes. I consider these early investigations largely unsuccessful as they failed to give precedence to the animals over their surroundings. By reducing their forms to lines, I had ranked them lower in the visual hierarchy of my compositions.
Shortly after this investigation, I read Steve Baker’s theories on the postmodern animal “holding to form”, which state that for an animal to carry its own meaning, one which is not humanised, it must be represented by itself “as it is” (Baker, S. 2000), without manipulation. My ideas about reductionism were thus contested and I began to approach the animal form differently again, paying more attention to detail, structure and line. By looking at the history of animal painting, I realised I needed an honest approach without sentimentality, in the same way Degas and Rembrandt used minimal brushstrokes to depict movement and character of an animal.
Following an idea triggered by Ron Broglio’s abstract about animals as surfaces, and of their productivity as a surface, I started to look more closely at animal (skin) pattern and texture. This exploration correlated with my pencil sketches (which are finely-detailed pieces containing repetitive mark-making and pattern-forming). I used falcons as a starting point, carefully rendering the feather markings as clouds of dots, dashes and lines to create fractured forms of birds breaking up into flocks of smaller individuals. The technique was also influenced by contemporary Australian artist Joshua Yeldham, whose exhibition I had seen in Sydney in 2010. His repetitive mark-making and near-obsessive gouging of surfaces to create intricate artworks inspired me to achieve the same in pencil and paint.
Currently I collect animal images from the internet and collage them in paint; I select the most interesting features of my chosen subject and re-appropriate them as a disjointed whole. Artists that have fed into this part of my practice include Corinne Wasmuht and Dan Hays, who both utilise fragmentation in relation to modern methods of communicating images. Wasmuht in particular juxtaposes images without hierarchy using laboriously slow painting methods and this is something I’m also keen to emulate.
A sense of the uncanny is also important in my work; I want the viewer to feel unsettled or curious and for the picture to raise questions. I use acrylic paint for its plastic and often lurid properties and for me they contribute to this suggestion of the unreal. Methods of distortion and fragmentation also play a crucial part in this and are elements I will continue to employ throughout the project.
I also wanted to fracture my images to represent the splintering of populations and the vulnerability of animals in the face of human progress. However I don’t think my paintings convey the message with clarity. For the viewer, the picture just speaks of breaking up an animal form; of distorting it within its own landscape. If I were to continue trying to represent this idea of people’s impact on animals, perhaps the next stage could be to add a human element to the pictures. I’ve considered using objects and architecture, however I think that adding a human element will actually alter the images too radically, shifting the focus from the animal and creating a too-obvious interspecies dialogue.
Based on peer/tutor feedback and on the theories I have recently read in texts by Giovanni Aloi and Ron Broglio, my intentions have changed. Trying to depict animals as defeated and fragile is not something on which I want to focus. My recent works have highlighted the colourations and patterns present in animals. I think perhaps the next step is to take the artworks to a new scale, using this formula of fragmentation, displacement and patternisation and make it bigger over the next few months. In the words of Ron Broglio “the impossibility of understanding the animal as Other serves as the productive friction by which authentically new thinking and art are produced” (Broglio, 2011). By taking Broglio’s ideas about animal surfaces literally and using animal forms to create interesting textures, colours and patterns in paint, I am using techniques of transformation to amplify this animal ‘Other’.