The first work you see in Animal Instinct: Paintings by Shelley Reed features a tiger, uncaged and on a hill overlooking a small river town, its head turned over its right shoulder to look you square in the eye.
Unless you have a degree in art history, you probably won’t notice the direct connection to Edwin Hendry Landseer, one of the Old Master painters referenced in both the work and its title. What you will notice, though, is the shocking lack of color and the strikingly high contrast of its monochromatic color palette.
Animal Instinct — which opened May 16 and runs through Sept. 14 at the Columbia Museum of Art — illustrates animals in exquisite detail in the tradition of the Old Masters, particularly Dutch painters, but with a contemporary twist. In art, it’s called appropriation. But for the lay reader, the Boston-based Reed is essentially sampling, to use hip-hop parlance. She’ll take an animal she likes from a Dutch Old Master painting and recontextualize it on a different background, and instill upon it a different context or meaning.
“She’s bringing forward some paintings that were considered beautiful in their time by a lot of artists that have been completely forgotten,” says Will South, chief curator at the museum.
Reed’s idea, in part, is to put fresh eyes on these forgotten masterworks. But, more importantly, it’s about finding common connections between the old and the new.
“A lot of my work is about ... what becomes important to a time and then gets lost, and why,” she says.
Reed, who holds a studio diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was trained as a colorist. She spent her first five years at art school as a painter splashing color on canvas.
“Now, I only use two colors,” she says. “I use one black, and one white.”
Her palette shrank as she became less interested in exploiting color and more interested in exploring the meaning of Old Master paintings.
“It emphasizes that it’s an echo from art history,” Reed says of her two-tone approach. “It allows me to really see the contrasts that are happening so I can pay more attention to the story.”
But the real reason, she says, is that color is very seductive.
“When people look at paintings, they expect color — they’re looking for color,” Reed says. “When they think art, they think color. I was a little bit sick of that.”
Some of the animals in Animal Instinct are fighting. Some of them are working. Some of them are at rest. All are portrayed in large-scale, cinematic environs; they’re all beautifully rendered, infinitesimally detailed. They almost seem to shimmer gracefully, like old black-and-white movies.
“They’re like the silver screen,” South says. “You get in front of them, and you remember why you love silver-screen movies. They’re beautiful. The amount of work in these things is staggering.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition is In Dubious Battle, a 47-foot-long narrative mural. The work is so vast that it took two years to create. The series of intricately orchestrated panels are far from copies of Old Master works, but rather complex collages taken from multiple sources. The title comes from the first chapter of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.
Reading left to right, the action of the painting intensifies. What begins as a small huddle of dogs and monkeys playing and posing around high-culture items — books, a cello, some wine — devolves into a melee of combat. But the crux of the painting is one of its smallest details. In the far-right corner, just outside the fray, a small rabbit cowers as six dogs battle a lion. The question here: Are the dogs protecting the rabbit, or are they fighting it over a potential meal?
“There’s an intentional ambiguity in the narrative,” Reed says. “It’s all about how someone else is going to read it.”
The narratives in Animal Instinct, then, really do tell an old tale, using animals to represent the conflict between humans’ wild nature and their need for civilization.
“What Shelley’s done is said, you know, these stories are still relevant,” South says. “Whether it’s dignity or struggle or just sheer meanness in the animal world, people recognize themselves in animals. Some people will look at the monkey who looks like a philosopher and think, ‘Yeah, that’s us.’”
The Columbia Museum of Art is at 1515 Main St. Visit columbiamuseum.org for more information.
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