"King of the Road" takes on new meaning when you eyeball a hulking, life-size gorilla pieced together out of tire treads. Sarah Brinn Perry's comical, lumbering giant is one of several reasons to check out "Beauty in the Beast: Animals in Contemporary Art by California Artists," at Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery in Santa Ana though Oct 9.
Animals are enjoying something of a renaissance in U.S. art, thanks to the work of such nationally known figures as Melissa Miller, the Texan who paints tigers and other beasts, and Deborah Butterfield, who makes stylized horse sculptures. Although it's hard to imagine ancient Egyptian sculpture without images of cats, Chinese art without birds and fish, 17th-Century Dutch genre scenes without yapping dogs, or even late Picasso without a sexually charged bull, animals in recent decades often were considered too problematic to be subjects of serious works of art.
The main problem--in an age celebrating cool, tough stuff--was a fear of sentiment and cliche, hard to avoid when faced with creatures whose habits and appearance are so familiar (and in many cases, so universally beloved). But the return of lush, narrative art has brought with it a questioning of such once-inviolate taboos. At the same time, artists are finding fresh, untraditional ways to deal with the nature of beasts.
Unlike the "Animals" exhibit at the Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery (where it closes Sunday), the Santa Ana show doesn't include work by well-known artists. In fact, the accompanying catalog would be more useful if it contained specific information about the 17 sculptors, painters and others in the show (are they all from Orange County?). The brief text by gallery director Mayde Herberg is a disjointed affair that winds up with a rote list of qualities commonly associated with animals, culled from reference books.
But some of the art is a treat.
John Temple's linear three-dimensional wall piece, "Rayfish," is spare and clean and cleverly done. A series of steel cutouts form the body of the fish; a scallop of rusted steel stands in for waves. And an elegant hook-and-pulley arrangement looks sharp against the white gallery wall.
Mike Sparks' "Flamenco Music" takes some humorous poetic license with "birds" that have been dismembered and fitted into the leather straps of a lined case, like the parts of a clarinet.
In an untitled mixed-media piece, Sparks creates a yellow-and-black striped cat emerging from a circular piece of bent, rusting metal. Red-painted devil heads mounted on old springs, and nails hammered sideways into an old piece of red-painted wood, are testimony to the artist's ability to find an individual, humorous way of culling meaning and resonance from miscellaneous battered objects.
Jean Gardner's charcoal drawings of cats are all about dappled patterns of light and shadow and the mysterious stalking ways of the feline. In "Willie No. 8," the cat sits precisely on the edge of a patch of shadow, his flanks gleaming in the sunlight.
Gardner also does cat bronzes. In two smaller pieces, she is overly preoccupied with lifelike detail in the manner of porcelain miniatures. But in "Line of Sight"--a larger, more generalized animal standing on a table with cat feet, the figure and its odd setting generate a much stronger presence, conveying the rooted stillness and mystery of cathood rather than anecdotal finicky qualities.
Tom Knechtel's drawings are meticulous, hyper-realist creations that preserve a child's awe of natural creatures. The mouse rendered in red pastel is a particularly sensitive piece, its ultra-fine, almost invisible whiskers practically quivering on the paper.
Steve Horn's ceramic "Warrior Urns" aren't so specifically tied to the animal kingdom, though it hardly matters given the overall lack of curatorial focus. They are fat, bumper-encircled vessels with scored surfaces, mounted on wheels or feet splayed like a sumo wrestler's. "Arms" grasp poles, or are replaced by protruding fish heads. These hulking creations somehow manage to combine an Oriental feel with a strong reminder of apparatus from the "Road Warrior" movies.
In "Wall Warrior," Horn translates the idea into a hunk of three-dimensional ceramic "calligraphy" with grasping arms, utilitarian-looking hooks and a spritz of blue scribbles.
Clark Walding, one of the better-known artists in the group, is represented by two rather disappointing paintings. The green-and-brown steer in "Heartland 20"' stands on a plot of uptilted land so heavily worked and reworked that the paint surface looks dispirited and muddy.
In "Man and Dog," the featureless companions assume nearly identical postures. That's a pretty tired idea, but the real pity--coming from someone whose work generally reveals such a juicy brushiness--is that the surface of the canvas is so flat and dead. Maybe the problem lies with the wax Walding is using here along with the oil paint.
Other artists in the show are Moira Hahn, Susie Ketchum, Leonard Konopelski, Alan Bennett, Taffee Besley, Poupee Boccaccio, Charlene Felos, Susanna Meiers, John Temple, Julie Thompson and Robert Tolone.