The magic of Charley Harper’s wildlife paintings crouches between his precise descriptions of animals’ bodies, gestures, and personalities, and the baby’s-first-blocks simplicity of his style. If either geometry or animal-watching quickens your pulse, you might brave a touch of Stendhal Syndrome to visit a collection of Harper’s prints on display in O’Bryonville.
Pat Wynne opened The Coffee Shop on Madison in 2007, and decorated its walls with the 40+ prints he has collected by the Cincinnati-based painter, illustrator, and poster artist, since the early 80’s. To a Harper fan this permanent (though rotating) exhibit may be the best thing to happen since the Contemporary Art Center’s Harper retrospective closed in 2007, months after the artist died at age 84.
Many of of his pieces first register as flat patterns of color and line, until connections among them give rise to animals. From the relationships among animals, narratives emerge—of deception, waiting, tenderness, bewilderment, and predation. Finally, from Harper’s juxtapositions of lines, colors, bodies, and stories, whimsical puns sally forth.
The paintings revel in visual puns, which Harper regarded as “the whisks that stir the creative broth.”
In “Raccoonnaissance” a flat pattern of brown circles and yellow dots pulses against a dark background. The paired dots, it turns out, belong to masks. Fifteen raccoons watch from behind a pile of logs, as a skunk helps himself to a plate of dog food. Their eyes resemble the circular bits of kibble that hold their attention, and a threadlike crescent moon behind them mirrors the curve of the raised tail that keeps them at a distance.
Harper observed wild animals and studied Audubon books to find the simplest and most accurate ways of describing animals, an approach he called “minimal realism.”
His work sidesteps the use of familiar symbols—scalloped paws, lemon-shaped eyes, or rodential buck-teeth—through which we often identify drawn animals. Rather than stamping individual characters out of a known pattern, he leads viewers to seek individuals within unfamiliar patterns of animals. If a flock of
birds all look the same to us, we may not know how to look closely enough; Harper, who does, guides us.
In “Pier Group” a row of six pelicans stands shoulder-to-shoulder atop six mooring posts. They look identical, except one post stands at a greater distance from the rest, forcing that pelican to dangle her unmoored foot into a gap. “Even on the pier, peer pressure appears,” wrote Harper in a caption for the painting.
Harper liked to explore parallels between human and animal experiences. In a self-interview* he explains how he confronted anthropomorphism, the attribution of human qualities to non-humans:
Very carefully. I walk a tightrope between animal and human behavior, looking for similarities between the two, being careful not to imply that they act from the same motives. Naturalists say they don’t—will we ever be sure? I see undeniable parallels in some areas of our lives—think of the mother-child relationship—that could scarcely have arisen from different sources. Such analogies can be instructive, amusing, even frightening, and they are poignant reminders of our inescapable kinship with all life forms.
This balancing act is evident in his treatment of mammals. He found that the simple forms of fish and birds lent themselves most easily to his minimalism—“Fish practically draw themselves,” he said. Mammals emerge more quickly from his patterns, perhaps because of their complex limbiness and familiar faces. But Harper does not let us overestimate their familiarity. While always leading viewers to imagine his subjects’ thoughts and sensations, he points out the limits of face-based guesswork, through funny contrasts between his subjects’ expressions and their circumstances.
In “Love on a Limb” two intertwined monkeys sit on a jungle branch, mirror images of each other, two halves of a long, ribbony heart. But they eye one another askance and tight-lipped, evoking attitudes of wary tension. The disconnect between what we read in their faces and bodies suggests that monkey and human expressions may not quite correspond.
In “Convivial Pursuit” three cheetah cubs tumble through the loop of their
mother’s tail, sporting tidy feline frowns. Among other things, they are a reminder that cats, from the front, frown—no matter how much fun they’re having.
And in “Claws,” a warty, beach-combing bulldog faces off with a crab. His snorting underbite, wrinkled brow, and stout shoulders recall the alarm that I felt, as a child, when I first met a bulldog. This one also recalls the lesson I learned, by my third or fourth bulldog, that reading the expression behind their perma-scowls required extra work.
Harper’s perspective on animals is uncommonly animal-focused. His subjects are not decorative elements drained of an inner life; nor are they caricatures, objects of
condescension, models of virtue, or zoological specimens. His paintings show a curiosity for whole animals—for ones who think, feel, and relate to each other.
As a result, no subject matter is at odds with the humor and harmony of his style. Birds out of formation bespeak unique inner worlds; a cardinal’s corn kernel mess has an exhilarated order of its own; chewed leaves evoke the passage of an interesting bug.
Harper celebrates the beauty of his subjects as they are—in grace, clumsiness, bloodthirst, and kindness—and invites us to do the same.
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* In Beguiled by the Wild, The Art of Charley Harper: Flower Valley Press, 1994.
Update, 4/20/10: Mr. Wynne has sold his coffee shop to The BonBonerie Bakery, and the space (at 2030 Madison Rd.) is now a café. An extensive collection of cat teapots has taken the place of the Harper collection.