Wild Kingdom at the Nassau County Museum of Art

By Franklin Hill Perrell

On view now through March 3rd at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, NY. This exhibition was curated by Franklin Hill Perrell and Debbie Wells. For more information, visit www.nassaumuseum.org

Garden Party, Feast for the Eyes, and Fool the Eye, (the curators’ prior exhibitions) are all topics that have fascinated artists, providing abiding themes through the ages, but no subject is more enduring than art about animals. Any visit to the great encyclopedic museums of the world proves the point: scarcely a gallery at the Louvre, the Vatican, or the Met is lacking such evidences in abundance. Clearly, since their silhouettes were first inscribed on walls of caves, animals have proved to be the most persistent of art subjects.

The last century is no exception. The exhibition, Wild Kingdom: One Hundred Years of Animal Art features paintings, prints, photography, and sculpture in a variety of styles, indicating that to a host of artists, animals still inspire. These images provide us a great insight into what we think about them, how our relationship with the animal kingdom is changing, and artists ongoing tendency to ascribe human character to these subjects in varying degrees.

Picasso saw the bull as an emblem of himself, Don Nice shows the protagonists of Animal Crackers as performers in a circus as well as the motif of a consumer product; New Yorker cover artist Roz Chast shows them as integral elements in a domestic interior, repeated endlessly in an illusionistic mirror, Susan Cushing fuses animal and human identities. To artists, the animal subject may be allegorical, symbolic, romantic, or portrayed in a straightforward realist manner. Animals may become characters in a visual narrative, or purely the objects of aesthetic admiration. Popular culture especially promotes a view of pets in human terms. Some progressive thinkers suggest that animals are much smarter than we think they are and foresee expanded animal rights as the next frontier in law.

But to an artist, they have another property: the shape, color, and distinct configuration of animals, so infinitely varied, provides ceaseless visual engagement because of their physical complexity, novel colors, textures, appendages such as horns or tails, the very ways in which they are shaped so differently than human. In art, animals can be portrayed singularly, or in multiplicity, isolated by species, or in a diverse context, sometimes with humans, often not. At times, their image means something beyond the factual, or comprises an element in a narrative. We can see them as threatening, benign, or at times helpful. Whatever one’s view, animals are here to stay, endangered or otherwise. Whether in the wild, or in zoos, as pets, or on farms, they will always be, except in the realm of art, mysterious to us.

Some of the art in the exhibition…

Working in grisaille (an artistic technique executed entirely in monochromatic shades of gray), Boston born and bred Shelley Reed combines historical art references that touch on nature and animals.

This enormous realist style piece consisting of two tightly adjoined panels, links her work to two European animalier artists from long ago – Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) and French painter/decorative designer Alexandre-François Desportes (1661-1743). The large scale of the art, along with the unexpected lack of color combined with a surprising amount of illusionist depth, engenders a contemporary aesthetic by fusing elements appropriated from baroque art of the past.

A brilliant interpreter of the everyday, Roz Chast’s cartoons depict neuroses, hilarity, angst and domesticity. Chast is a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and an award-winning author.

The Brooklyn born artist now lives in Connecticut with her family and two parrots. Her affection for animals is evident in Infinity Mirror Cover, which depicts a series of humans and domesticated animals interacting through several vignettes. It’s a charmingly observational piece showing the relationship between owner and pet.

This illustration was on the cover of The New Yorker on March 2, 2013 – one of over 800 cartoons (and counting!) that the magazine has published of her work since 1978.

Petra Cabot was an American artist, but is best known for her popular tartan plaid design called the Skotch Kooler, a container composed of three layers of insulation to keep ice cream and other foods cold for hours without ice. Commissioned by the Hamilton Metals Products Co in 1951, this single item still is a favorite collectible item. Petra Cabot once said, “I decided to make the best-looking bucket anybody ever saw.”

Cabot’s painting style fused modern composition with the local color of her beloved home, the artist colony Woodstock, New York.  In The Hog Pen, (c.1940), she contrasts a close-up view of a rustic hog pen against a highly edited background of a pink barn. The unexpected combination, along with the loving face of the hog mother, gives the painting the charm and whimsy of folk art. However, the palette and paint handling techniques show Cabot to be a trained artist savvy in the latest styles of the era. Born in Philadelphia and married at age 19 to first husband, poet Laurence Jordan and then Blake Cabot, a medical writer and publisher, Petra Cabot died at age 99.

Milton Glaser is unquestionably the embodiment of American graphic design today. He opened Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and continues to produce a prolific amount of work in various creative fields to this day. He is an iconic fixture on the New York advertising and design scene, including his ubiquitous I Love NY logo (which has been described as ‘the most frequently imitated logo design in human history’). Other notable design projects in his portfolio include work for such clients as New York Magazine, Vespa, Columbia Records, Mad Men/AMC, Stony Brook University, United Nations, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Grand Union, Fairway and Brooklyn Brewery.

This original watercolor, here on display at the museum, was the basis for a poster he designed for the New York Zoological Society in 1983. Glaser places his haunting image over a quote celebrating the snow leopard’s magnificent demeanor. The work’s vibrant colors evoke the cat’s glowing eyes and vigilant poise.

Milton Glaser comments on his thoughts in creating this art work:  
“I know the snow leopard is white, but I reasoned that since white contains the full spectrum of color, I was free to paint a Technicolor image. In some forms of communication, a contradictory visual creates the image of its opposite.”

Lumen Martin Winter was a celebrated muralist, sculptor, watercolorist and painter in his day. Prominent during the WPA period, he was rediscovered posthumously. Recent scholarship about the artist has elevated him from forgotten figure to significant recognition as an important American public artist with a solo retrospective exhibition at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook in 2017. His many achievements include: being the first living American artist to have his art featured on a United States postage stamp, creating murals for Radio City Music Hall, United Nations General Assembly in New York City, the AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington, DC., countless government buildings, public schools and more.

Winter first created Steeds of Apollo in 1969 for a mural at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. The image later served as the inspiration for the design for the official insignia for NASA’s Apollo Lunar Landing Project in 1970. It was chosen as the theme of the flight and used for the astronaut’s official badge.

The most well-known creations by handbag designer Judith Leiber are her bejeweled minaudières. A minaudière is a women’s fashion accessory that functions as an elegant purse, but is also considered an object d’art.

A Holocaust survivor, Leiber learned to be a master at constructing handbags while living in Budapest, Hungary. One of her specialties was creating whimsical shapes in metal, many of animals, and then carefully encrusting them with colorful Swarovski crystals. In describing her process, Leiber stated, “I design the shading and highlighting so that every crystal counts.”

In addition to private collections, her handbags are also housed in permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian, Corcoran Galleries, and Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over her career, she produced over 3,500 designs. First Ladies and celebrities who own Judith Leiber handbags include: Barbara Bush, Mary Tyler Moore, Mamie Eisenhower, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Joan Rivers and Beverly Sills.Together with her artist husband Gerson, they ran their handbag business in New York City and later moved to their home in the Springs section of East Hampton minutes away from another creative couple’s home and studio, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. They both died, at age 97, hours apart in 2018.

For more information about the exhibition and details about the art on view, visit www.nassaumuseum.org

Leave a Reply