By Bob Bahr
Andrew Denman knows he’s pushing it. In fact, he’s made the conscious decision to do so.
Denman has long put together shows that group his paintings by themes. In the past, he hasn’t worked in series, but looking back over his work he could pick out recurring themes and select paintings to form a body of work that made for a cohesive show. But his role as instructor at the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation workshops in Dubois, Wyoming put him in the situation of offering a bit of advice, over and over. Advice that he took himself last year.
“I am known there at SKB as a contemporary animal artist, so people come to me and ask how they can push their art in a more modern direction,” says Denman. “In every case, what I told them was, ‘You have some very interesting contemporary aspects here, but you are not pushing it far enough. It’s not easy to do that. But that is what needs to happen. Start with observation, from the visible world—that’s comfortable. Then really commit to push your modernity. If you do it just a little bit, it doesn’t look finished, or it looks like you don’t know what you are doing.’ I said that to three or more people, and I realized this is how my work has seemed to me. It has had contemporary elements, but I hadn’t pushed it far enough. So how do I do that? What should my focus be?”
The result of this exploration is an exhibition of new work at Astoria Fine Art called “A Different Animal.” It opens on July 21 and comes down July 31.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. “Totems” explores a connection between stacked animals that show typical behavior for the species, and hint at anthropomorphic connections, and also the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest indigenous people. Denman assures viewers that his use of totems reflects respect for Native American culture, and he sheepishly admits that his heritage includes “a very thin thread” of Native American blood. “They are not deep ties, but it’s something that has always interested me,” he says. “I’m very interested in the spiritual ties between man and nature. Any culture that lives close to the land has that, and certainly Native American culture has this.”
Totem poles tell a story. Denman’s Totem paintings suggest connections between animal behaviors and human life. “I drew upon the totem idea to create parallels with our daily life,” he says. “Anthropomorphization is a dirty word in animal art. But as a general concept, it’s something we can’t help but do. I see a bird and imagine an incredible sense of freedom when they fly. I admire a cat’s stealth and skill at hunting. These traits I admire and wish for myself. That is anthropomorphization.”
Native American totem poles, according to Denman, were “heavily stylized and put in a particular place to express the human condition. The reverence for and responsibility for the natural environment that Native American cultures had when they needed the environment made it a natural outgrowth of their lives. This continues through today in a way; we still look to animals as a way of expressing the human condition. Our logos, corporate images, ad campaigns, branding–so many use animal images in the same way Native American totems do. The lion symbolizes strength and bravery; the raven, a harbinger or trickster.”
In another section of the exhibition, Denman tackles “Ornaments.” He applied gold leaf to many of these pieces, which combine wildlife with “baubles,” as Denman puts it. They sometimes resemble Christmas ornaments, but Denman sees them as going further than that. They are birds and such presented as ornamentation, and their depictions border on iconography. Again, Denman cautions against reading too much into the religious aspects of his approach. He asserts that he was raised in “absolutely no faith tradition,” and yet he has respect and knowledge of many traditions. “The religious traditions that I’m borrowing from and are inspired by and used with respect; in no way am I attempting to parody or make fun of anyone’s faith tradition. I’m simply borrowing liberally from various artistic languages to say something new.”
“There was an early Christian collection of ornaments in a local museum near me when I was growing up,” Denman continues. “I always liked the sense of harmony and reverence that comes through in that work. You don’t have to even know the narrative to understand on a visceral level how it is supposed to make you feel. And this language is different from modern painting approaches. There was a focus on symmetry, whereas we artists favor dynamic compositions that keep your eye moving around the picture. Your eye is calmed when the subject is in the middle. There’s a sense of religiosity, of peacefulness, meditation—just by putting the subject in the middle.”
“By taking the animal out of its natural habitat and putting it in a gold frame, I present it as an icon, as something to be revered. Simply but putting an image in a frame and hanging it on a wall, artists have the unique power to make the neglected into the heroic, but by highlighting that same image in gold and soaking it with spiritual significance, one can go beyond the heroic to the divine. Nature has it. Think about stained glass windows high in a cathedral. Someone wandered through the forest and saw the light shining through the leaves and got the idea of stained glass and light coming in.”
The third section of “A Different Animal” focuses on “Patterns.” This group comes off as being the most contemporary in feel—because it sometimes juxtaposes man-made patterns with animals, because the animals are sometimes depicted in unreal colors, and because a few of the patterns have a slightly industrial feel. There is grit and a touch of a factory in these, showing non-slip surfaces and wallpaper-like repetition, while retaining Denman’s absolute devotion to anatomical accuracy and naturalistic behavior.
The pieces will only be on view for 10 days in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but chances are that few will return home with Denman. My crystal ball predicts many red dots on the walls of Astoria Fine Art. But then, everything about this exhibition has the feel of the immediate and the fresh.
“I’m not sure whether to be proud of myself or horrified, but every painting for this show was done from mid-January to mid-June,” says Denman. “If I gave myself a year to do this, I would invariably stray off course and do other things. It felt like an overarching theme would be lost if I had taken it more slowly. So, I painted 19 pieces, plus two more for another show in just six months. There was not a lot of sleep; I don’t know how I did it!” Ω