Sherrie Wolf’s exhibition Animaliére, on view at Russo Lee Gallery through September 30, is full of contradictions in the best possible way. The eleven oil paintings are both sensual and cerebral, deftly weaving together everyday objects and canonical art historical references all while including surfaces that reflect, distort, and play with vision. They are a visual feast, the vivid hues of ripe fruit, the delicate petals of blooming flowers, the soft feathers and wiry hides of animals providing layers of diverse imagery and texture to delight the senses.
Largely consisting of still life paintings, the works in Animaliére are accessible, but in their consistent references to art history, they are also erudite. Both literally and figuratively, Wolf paints herself into an art historical lineage, a singular talent with a unique, contemporary vision that nevertheless is inspired by and indebted to the artists of the past. In a world of short attention spans, visual overload, and jaded sensibilities, Wolf has done something sublime; she has painted real, believable things so richly that they astonish, morphing into compelling fantasies.
Animaliére fills the front room and reception area of Russo Lee’s NW 21st Avenue gallery, a beautiful, luminous space that seems to amplify the light in Wolf’s paintings. The exhibition’s title refers to an artist who creates images of animals, and is gendered in the feminine as a reference to Wolf herself. Wolf’s status as an animaliére was the genesis of this show. In previous works, Wolf painted versions of well-known historical paintings depicting famous artists–usually men–with an important twist; she put herself in the position of the artist. Wolf painted herself at her easel into Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio and Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. In 2014, she painted herself in the place of painter and founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Charles Willson Peale, pulling back a red curtain to reveal a collection that combined art and natural history and that perhaps foreshadowed her current exhibition.
Wolf wanted to put herself into the studio of a woman painter, but there are far fewer paintings of historical women artists at work. Wolf discovered an 1893 painting of French Realist painter Rosa Bonheur in her studio. Bonheur is certainly art history’s most well-known animaliére, remembered for her vivid, detailed paintings of animals. She is also remembered for the ways she fought gender bias in her life and work. Bonheur famously had to get police permission to wear pants while she tromped through muddy fields to do research for her animal paintings, already considered a masculine subject at the time. She was also a lesbian who had long-term partnerships with the artists Nathalie Micas and later, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. Bonheur had incredible success as an artist: at just 27 she received a commission from the French government that led her to produce Plowing in the Nivernais, still one of her most celebrated works. A continuation of Wolf’s previous work that would allow her to stretch in new directions, Animaliére began here, over a year and a half ago, with Wolf painting herself at work in Bonheur’s studio.
At 70 x 95 inches, Wolf’s Self Portrait in Rosa Bonheur’s Studio is the largest painting in the exhibition, and it fills the space with Wolf’s commanding, focused presence. Wolf sits in the foreground, wearing contemporary clothing in the same shades of blue and black that Bonheur wore. Like Bonheur, Wolf holds several brushes and looks out at the viewer. In the original, Bonheur sits before a painting of lions in a huge, gilded frame. In the contemporary version, Wolf has swapped out Bonheur’s paintings for one of her own, a floral image, still in the ostentatious frame of the original. It is clear that Wolf’s painting is an homage and not a copy. She depicts herself in the studio surrounded by animals who seem to have wandered straight out of Bonheur’s paintings, as if they have come to life and are hanging around to watch the artist at work. A lioness keeps watch over her playful cubs, while bunnies nibble carrots and hide beneath the furniture. The effect is compelling and charming, an imaginative interaction with Bonheur’s favored subjects.
Self Portrait in Rosa Bonheur’s Studio also includes an image on the floor in the foreground of 18th-century French painter Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, who was most known for being court painter to Queen Marie Antionette. It’s a fun detail, a nod to yet another woman who was enormously talented but had to fight the male-dominated art world for her position. Atop the image of Vigee-Lebrun is a pair of black glasses just like Wolf’s. They lay at an angle across the image of Vigee-Lebrun, as if strewn there casually, and seem to playfully vie for the viewer’s gaze. As a whole, the painting is part of Wolf’s desire to, in her words, “see myself as a woman in history.” She went on to credit Bonheur as the artist who made her think more about animals in historic painting, a theme she continued to explore in the rest of the paintings in the exhibition.
The true standout in this show is not a specific work, but the way that Wolf paints light. That light–the way it glints off fabric to create a satiny sheen, the way it reflects off metallic vases and cocktail shakers, the way it creates bright, focused spotlights on the peels of fruit–immediately drew me to Still Life from Snyders to Oudry. At 42 x 72”, this is a large painting in which every inch of the picture plane is filled. This, too, is remarkable in that all of the paintings in this exhibition seem to be bursting with things, but they are never busy, never too much.
In the foreground of Still Life from Snyders to Oudry swaths of red, white, and pale blue fabric create the base for the still life. On the right, a squat, shiny vase with a coppery surface is followed by metallic silver objects–a vase, a cocktail shaker, a bowlful of oranges, a plate with a peeled lemon. Some of these sit atop another layer of fabric, a black and white striped pattern that undulates across the surface, drawing the viewer’s eye from the foreground further back into the painting. On the left, the foreground is filled with translucent bowls and plates, each rimmed with a band of shining gold or silver. In the center, a metallic gold tea cup rests on its side atop a saucer, and a series of small objects at regular intervals just off center–a small potted succulent, a black dish holding a lemon, an orange, a silver vase–create a kind of visual “zigzag,” an optical obstacle course to follow. There is a lot to look at, from the shapes of the different vessels to the meticulous details of the objects they hold. Wolf excels in painting not just light, but the textures of each surface so that they hum with energy. We see the fruition of Wolf’s desire to, in her words, create “activity and rhythm” within still life, a genre of painting typically considered static.
Among the strewn objects are several images that reference other works from art history. Each small and with a white border, they appear like photographs or the kinds of postcards of artwork for sale at museum gift shops. In the foreground is a version of George Stubbs’ Zebra that is at once a nod to the original and to Wolf’s other work. Where in Stubbs’ original the zebra stands in a forest clearing, the one painted here stands behind a still life of a plate with a cherry on it. Nearby in the exhibition is Wolf’s work Cape Mountain Zebra, in which she again borrows from Stubbs but places the zebra behind a peach, a cherry, and an orchid. Here, as in other works in Wolf’s oeuvre, she puts herself not just in conversation with past painters, but also puts herself into art history via her reimaginings of well-known works.
Elsewhere in the painting are small images of work by 20th century painters Gwen John and George Bellows, as well as those deeper in the timeline, such as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard–famously one of few women elected to the French Royal Academy in the 18th century. And the last one, in the background on the right side appears to be Young Man in a Fur Cap, a painting by Rembrandt’s student Carel Fabritius. As an art historian, I am delighted both by the references I get right away and by the sleuthing I had to do to identify the Fabritius (which included consulting three specialists in Golden Age Dutch painting, because simply asking Wolf would have taken the fun out of it). This is what I mean by erudite references in the paintings, and yet they are accessible; one’s enjoyment is not dependent on those references. These packed compositions offer myriad possible viewing experiences. They play with perception, not just in the textures, the quality of light, and the color, but also in the subtle details. The reflective surfaces do not just reflect the world of the painting. Look carefully and you will see Wolf in her studio. When discussing her artistic practice in her artist talk Wolf explained: “I’m always looking for ways to expand the space.” The reflections help bring the current, real world into the fictional space of the paintings.
The title Still Life from Snyders to Oudry refers to two additional Dutch painters, both animaliers (the masculine version of the French term for animal painters). It is the influence of just one, Flemish Baroque painter Frans Snyders, that is visible not just in this painting but throughout the exhibition. In Still Life from Snyders to Oudry, Wolf borrows the background image of a fox and heron both unable to eat the contents of a tall glass jar directly from Snyders’ 17th-century painting, The Fox and the Heron. Similarly, Wolf borrows the composition of Snyders’ Still Life with a Swan and makes it into the foreground and background of her painting Feast. In Snyders’ original the focus is a table full of available game, presumably for sale, with the viewer in the position of a potential buyer.
In Wolf’s version the viewer is at a further remove, physically distanced from the game by a blue table covered with fruit and a vase of flowers. Our vision is also at a remove, as we gaze upon the game through the blossoms and leaves of the purple and white flowers Wolf has added. These additions add visual interest and shift the viewer’s focus to the vibrant purple flower in the center foreground. She achieves similar effects in the paintings Marriage and Banquet, where we see Wolf’s playful engagement in what all artists do–taking what’s great from others and making it their own.
A statement posted on the gallery wall next to Self Portrait in Rosa Bonheur’s Studio concludes with the idea that the paintings in this exhibition borrow from art historical animal paintings “as inquiries to play on that genre.” The works in Animaliére are virtuosic in terms of technique, meticulously painted and brimming with light and color. They are layered in terms of their subject matter and the compositions themselves, making playful references to earlier works and a whole history of thinking about and depicting the natural world. But they are also just plain fun to look at, and I walked out of the gallery feeling that my vision had been refreshed, perhaps even sharpened. I seemed to notice things anew as I strolled down the street. In Animaliére Wolf succeeds in positioning herself as “a woman in history,” a painter whose work is deeply connected to the past, is important now, and will remain so in the future.
Anamaliére is on view at Russo Lee Gallery through September 30th. The gallery is located at 805 NW 21st Avenue in Portland and is open from Tuesday through Friday from 11:00-5:30 and on Saturday from 11-5.