Where the wild things are: Animal iconography in contemporary art

15 June - 2 July 2016

Every creature of the world is like a book and a picture to us and a mirror.
-Alan of Lille (Twelfth Century theologian)

With work from gallery and invited artists including Catherine Barron, Michael Beirne, Gabhann Dunne, John Kindness, Vera Klute, Brendon Marczan, Bennie Reilly, Sheila Pomeroy, Patrick Redmond and Tim Shaw RA, this exhibition considers the disparate ways in which animal imagery is deployed in contemporary art.

Historically, artists have always turned to the animal kingdom as a source of inspiration for their work. In fact, long before humanity mastered the written word, beasts painted in ochre mud and hematite adorned our cave walls. Contemporary research suggests that these paintings served a shamanistic purpose, to channel the power of the animal perhaps, or to influence the behaviour of the creatures for the purpose of the hunt. All early civilisations developed this theme in their art, from the Mesopotamians to the Mexicans - drawings, prints, books, music, and medieval and literary manuscripts illustrate the role of animals as symbols, teachers of moral lessons, aesthetic and scientific muses, talking creatures, and companions. The personification of animals in art has become so established that many of us inherently accept animals in art as representative symbols for human behaviour and interaction, with human values projected onto animals as a vehicle for exploring our relationships with one-another and the world around us. 

In contemporary art, from Damien Hirst’s shark to Maurizio Cattelan's taxidermy and Louise Bourgeois’s spider, questions of identity and creativity have consistently been framed through the use of animals and animal imagery. Sometimes the animals themselves are deployed to challenge conventions around their depiction, such as Italian artist Gino De Dominicis who, from the 1970s, staged exhibitions open only to creatures with no humans allowed. It’s impossible to know what was in the show and, more importantly, what animals might have thought of it, but De Dominicis succeeded in reversing our usually anthropocentric point of view.

All of the artists included in this exhibition frequently use animals as symbols, often to express some aspect of the human condition. In some instances the animal is a mnemonic device to precipitate or to record an experience or a memory, sometimes the animal functions as a cipher for the artist themselves. 

For Gabhann Dunne the idea of a perfect communion with nature and the fear for its incipient destruction is a recurring theme. His work makes reference to ancient rituals and seems to depict a world that returns to wilderness after the disappearance of mankind. It’s not the Garden of Eden in which humans and animals live side by side; it’s a post-apocalyptic world in which animals are left to play among the ruins of humanity.

Michael Beirne’s drawing ‘Untitled’, depicting a hooded dog in a bleak landscape revisits themes familiar in his work. As ever there is a strange beauty and its implications are ambiguous. A previous exhibition (Butler Gallery, 2005), featured a self-portrait, which by some strange transformation evolved the outer appearance of his beloved dog, recently deceased. For artist John Gerrard, reviewing the show for Circa magazine, Beirne’s work teems “with jewel-like worlds of webs, dark odysseys of pain and love with an unsettling knowledge of some primordial horror at the core of life.… His work seeming to originate from deep in the past but with more than a slight nod to Bosch. In their execution they hold a smile for Frida Kahlo and her fiercely personalised brand of surrealism.” Beirne’s first solo show since the Butler exhibition in 2005 will be held at the Molesworth in December 2016.

Brendon Marczan’s graphic depictions of birds and animals from his native Australia - pardalotes, galahs and rosellas among others - represent a desire to liberate animals from their role as metaphorical placeholders for humans in art and move them into the literal. He chooses to accentuate or occlude aspects of the creature, leaving just a wing or a fan of tail feathers and rendering the picture plane difficult to read precisely while forcing the viewer to examine the detail to discern the whole. 

Sheila Pomeroy’s use of animal imagery, like her opulently crafted painting, is rooted in classical methodology. Her wolves and foxes are a visual shorthand for aspects of the human psyche. In Totem, the portrait of a man with his eyes closed as though in sorrow or in meditation is juxtaposed with a ram’s horn and a bleached skull. In ancient societies, the ram was often a symbol of determination, action, initiative, and leadership; pictorially it was used to communicate ideas about fertility and ritual activities. This triad of man, skull and ram suggest a narrative incorporating these meanings and those of death or an ending. 

For his painting of a Goldfinch Patrick Redmond also delves into art history with a nod to Carel Fabritius and an irreverent wink to Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘Picture of an Oak Tree’ - in reality a glass of water on a shelf.