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Animals and Architectures

Works by Polly Little and Catherine Linder Spencer at Indigo Gallery

There’s a fine complementarity about the art of Polly Little and Catherine Linder Spencer on display at the Indigo Gallery on Allen Street. The work of both artists is about areas of the exotic—the other—in connection with areas of the ordinary and everyday and personal to the artist.

Polly Little’s art consists mainly of expressionistic painting portraits of animals wild and domestic. In vivid brushwork and dense mixtures of generally subdued colors, they examine in a quiet and unobtrusive manner into conceptual dichotomies of fear and trust, feral and tame, and predator and prey. Ultimately touching on the key issue of human versus nonhuman, but in a twist, from the nonhuman term of the dichotomy.

In an artist’s statement, Little avers she is “fascinated by the intelligence, natural beauty, and adaptability of animals.” The intelligence is in the eyes. These are straight-on portraits, for the most part, in which the animal subject looks out at the human observer as intently and intelligently as the observer looks at the painted picture, and for all one can tell, garnering no less aesthetic pleasure and insight in the process. The supposed one-sided power relationship product of the gaze is dispersed by the mutuality of the gaze experience.

The writer William Faulkner, who had a deep and abiding and unsentimental appreciation of the animal realm, tame and wild, most admired animals—and for that matter, humans, too—that understood fear but did not yield to fright. These are animals precisely of that sort.

The animals that don’t look straight out at the human observer watch him or her glancingly, warily. Trust based on vigilance.

The animal beauty of the wild and tame creatures is a given, making sentimental embellishment superfluous, so there is none of it.

The idea of adaptability is suggested through perfunctory backgrounds of a similar dense mix of colors and dark shades as for the foreground animal subjects, suggesting camouflage, adaptation to habitat. Adding—particularly in conjunction with the idea of intelligence—a Darwinian evolutionary nuance. We honor these animals not just for their present-moment animal grace, but that they are our ancestors.

In addition to the paintings, there are several sculptures of animals in painted papier-mâché. These are more abstract animals than those in the paintings. More in the way of Everycat (red), Everydog (blue), and Everymonkey (purple), in idiosyncratically animated poses.

Catherine Linder Spencer’s works are recollective in various ways of her visits to foreign lands. They include two different types of “spirit houses” of Thai inspiration, and a dozen or so photos from a time she spent living and working in the African Saharan country of Mali.

The main “spirit house” is a totemistic construction with a roof of woven twigs, and walls replete with memorabilia items of every sort from buttons to beads to shells to postcards to small paintings and drawings, reproductions and originals, and snatches of text, including several from that most memorable from childhood description of a visit to a strange country, Alice in Wonderland.

Another smaller but similar piece is at first glance simply a thicket of twigs, that then on closer inspection are seen to be fraught with myriad tiny metal—and sometimes medal—relief images of angels with wings. The piece is called Forever in our Hearts (Remembering Chuck).

The large-format, colorful photographs all have the same title, Au Coeur du Mali, and depict two basic subject matters: Mali people, particularly women and children; and an architecture that demonstrates not so much the architectural principle of form follows function as the sculptural principle of material dictates form.

It is an architecture reminiscent of sandcastles. Construction materials are some bricks and mortar, much mud and sticks. The sticks seem to be basically reinforcement elements within the mud construction, but protruding and in profusion and with a design regularity that they become decorative elements as well. Principal architectural features are arches, both Romanesque and ogival, open, as in doorways and passageways, and closed, as support and decorative elements in mud walls. All very strange and beautiful.

The people photos are not the images we’re used to seeing of third world women and children starving and dying, but simply of people with little in the way of material comforts and possessions by our standards, but not seeming to mind. (But we are too comfortable. We possess too much.)

This exhibit of excellent work by both artists continues through July 7.

jack foran

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