Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of thingsMary Oliver, Wild Geese (2004)
After a year of literal and figurative isolation living in a pandemic, Mary Oliver’s sentiment is particularly welcome. This month the exhibitions at Antler brim with wildlife: buzzing bees, fighting foxes, coiling serpents, and watchful deer. Together, April Coppini’s gestural drawings, Chase Mullen’s meticulous naturalism, and Chris Austin’s surreal paintings remind us that our experiences of nature are never just one thing. They are shaped not only by exploring the outdoors, but also by science, popular culture, and our daydreams. Being in the “family of things” is at once beautiful and complex, a sentiment which Coppini, Austin, and Mullen all capture in their work in different ways.
Coppini’s work is far more explosive—both in terms of the bursts of color and the strong sense of gesture and movement—in person than it appears online. In Great Horned Owl, the subject pushes toward the front of the picture plane. There is an intense immediacy, as if the owl directly confronts the viewer’s gaze while mid-flight. The precise details on the owl’s face contrast with Coppini’s much looser, abstracted marks that create the barest possible sense of wings. It has the effect of focusing attention on the owl’s face, and on a strong, determined predator whose sharp vision is critical to its survival.
Coppini’s bees, depicted in multiple variations across several drawings, swoop and twist and buzz across the page. Their movements are rendered in graceful, arcing lines, loose, round shapes, and smudges of charcoal that show us not only where they are now, but also where they have been. Yellow-faced Bumblebee: in Lupines is a particularly stunning work, the bee hovering in a whirl of movement across a backdrop of pastel blues and purples. The drawings capture and enlarge the constant activity of these tiny pollinators. The bees are mighty and tireless, Coppini’s drawings of them their own kind of poetry.
Where movement draws viewers to Coppini’s work, it is the scrupulous detail in Baton Rouge-based painter Chase Mullen’s work that invites viewers to look closely. Mullen’s aquaria, in works like Sprout, Lagoon, and Basin III, encapsulate microcosms of the natural world in human-made environments. In Lagoon, there is the pleasure of looking at every tiny scale on the body of the small alligator in a bowl. There is a slight upward bump in the water line where the creature pokes his snout and eyes into the air, surveying the surroundings from inside a bowl it will probably quickly outgrow. In Sprout, a frog on a lily pad stretches its back legs into the water as if about to leap. The details give the works a keen sense of naturalism but are also a means of suggesting movement and liveliness in works that are otherwise characterized by stillness. It is perhaps one manifestation of the artist’s larger exploration of tension and transition in his work.
Similarly, in Drought II the details create tension between fragility and sturdiness. The painting depicts a snake skeleton coiled around a green succulent, the snake’s body frozen in motion and structurally sound even though the flesh is gone. Thin stems bearing orange and white flowers emerge from the succulent, as seven butterflies in shades of yellow, orange, brown, and black flit through the scene and alight on the bones and the flowers. The delicacy of Mullen’s brushwork comes through in the soft curves of butterfly wings, the tapering points of the serpent’s bones, and the knobby textures of flower stamens. Part field guide illustration and part fantasy, Drought II presents life and death as literally intertwined.
There is an even more pronounced sense of fantasy in the work of Toronto-based artist Chris Austin. Six of the seven paintings on view feature sharks floating in the sky, moving ominously and effortlessly through the air. The ambiguity of the images—what is this maligned animal doing out of its usual context? —is part of what is so compelling, even fun, about the images. I found myself wanting to construct narratives around them.
That ambiguity is enhanced in the context of the exhibition where there are multiple variations on this theme presented in a single gallery. Just when you’ve decided for sure whether the shark is friend or foe, you move on to the next painting and uncertainty returns.
The clearest sense of a predator-prey relationship is in And She Ran. At just 8 x 8 inches, And She Ran is small but powerful. Here the shark looms above a running deer, the dominant tone of the painting the unsettling blood red of horror movies. It’s hard not to think of “blood in the water” scenes from shark movies like Jaws, The Shallows, and virtually anything on Discovery’s annual Shark Week. There is no water in the painting, but the red seamlessly merges sky and land and gives the work an eerie sense of the inevitable success of a formidable hunter closing in on its prey. This imagined nature scene is, to return to Mary Oliver’s words, “harsh and exciting.”
But the shark is not always legible as a villain. The Teeth of a Crashing Gale features a solo shark above waves crashing into the cliffs. Devoid of any sense of the shark as a hunter, we can simply appreciate the beauty of its form. It is as if we get to see the majesty of this creature simultaneously in its natural habitat—the sea–and just outside of it (or more precisely, above it). In Training pairs the shark with a human figure who holds out a blazing torch, as if attempting to work with rather than against this formidable creature.
In both Courageous Wandering and You Cried Out to Me, two standouts in the show, the shark hovers above and slightly behind deer. In both paintings, the shark’s powerful body and jagged teeth are in stark contrast with the lithe, delicate bodies of the deer, yet the titles enhance the sense of ambiguity and seem to challenge viewers’ preconceived notions about both types of animals. The forests in both Courageous Wandering and You Cried Out to Me are so lush and vivid that you can almost smell the mossy, loamy aroma of the great outdoors. In these surreal paintings where sharks can swim out of water, it is perhaps no less surprising to imagine that they could befriend the deer, and that animals who do not exist in the same habitats could do some courageous wandering together. Overall, Austin’s paintings are surprising in their content and stunning in their execution.
The narrator in Oliver’s Wild Geese poem tells us that we do not need to strive for perfection or absolution in life. Rather, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It is a task at once utterly simple and unnervingly complex. What I love about the works at Antler this month is that they awaken something, inviting viewers to explore nature beyond the surface level, with more feeling than logic, and with wild, unbounded curiosity.
Work by April Coppini, Chase Mullen, and Chris Austin is on view online and at Antler’s NE Alberta gallery space through March 21st. The gallery is currently open by appointment only. To schedule, contact email@example.com. Masks are required, and the gallery has social distancing and contactless payment protocols in place.