“Tiger, tiger burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Though she is probably not immortal, it would seem Karen Heagle has stepped up to William Blake’s challenge. Her large, beautiful, and radiant painting "Inexperienced/Insatiable" (2011) is but one of many depictions of sublime animals, of both the predator and prey varieties, in her current exhibition.
Heagle’s tiger wades into a stream or river, head lowered, and glows from within (lushly painted stripes and golden-hued fur) and from without (a reddish light is cast over the whole scene, as if from a setting sun). This fearsome beast stands guard over the rest of the exhibit, which consists mostly of still lifes of prey animals, such as deer and rabbits.
Heagle has, in the past, made reference to heroic figures in her paintings; here she presents a more subtle, nuanced series of works that draw from great nature morte artists of the past. We see shades of Chardin and Soutine, as well as Flemish and Dutch vanitas works, in "Rabbit, Copper Pot, Lava Lamp" (2011); the titular lava lamp is a modern update, though with its constantly morphing waxy insides, it is a perfect metaphor for the vicissitudes of life. Nothing is constant but change.
"Studio Still Life with Partially Disemboweled Deer" (2011), the show’s standout work, brings together elements of the hunt and the artist’s studio: a dead deer, hanging by one hoof; a Savarin can reminds us of Jasper Johns; the dark, nighttime setting is a nod to Philip Guston and his night-studio scenes. All of this is woven together by the workbench -- studio or kitchen furniture? We might be led to believe that Heagle sees both. The whole mise en scene is framed by a leaded glass window (its pattern reminds us of Johns’s Flagstone paintings), which casts a feeling of religiosity over the proceedings. Heagle reminds us of the sacredness of the hunt, with its codes of respect for life (we don’t kill more than we need) and a reverence for the act of painting itself. Like Guston, many of Heagle’s works depict elements of the studio as a constant theme. Heagle, like Soutine, though, breathes more life into her works, allowing Nature to triumph over Art.
Heagle’s brushy, wet, painterly style bears some relation to Frans Hals, particularly "Fisher Girl" (1630-32) in the Metropolitan Museum’s current Hals show. She breathes life not just into an old genre of painting, but into the dead animals she portrays. It is this constant back-and-forth aspect of her work that intrigues us and holds our attention. "Self-Portrait in Armor" (2011) depicts the empty suit of armor, a stand-in for the artist. Has she taken it off, so to speak, to show the sincerity of her work? We are also reminded of suits of women’s armor (yes, those have a long history), in particular the diminutive helmet (also at the Met) purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc.
Another Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian once wrote, “One day the time will come when we shall be able to do without all the arts, as we know them now; beauty will have ripened into palpable reality. Humanity will not lose much by missing art.” Though Mondrian made some beautiful paintings, his was a project set to freeing the spirit by diminishing the visual experience. The House of Art has many rooms; in those rooms are many mansions, and Mondrian’s work no doubt resides in one of them. We are fortunate, however, to have artists like Heagle, who allow us beauty and the sublime. And that is the house that we might dwell in for now. - Bradley Rubenstein
I-20 is at 557 West 23rd Street in New York, New York.
Shown: "Raw State" (2011)
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.