Contemporary Bear Area Artists, Sullivan Goss
By Tom Pazderka
Landscape and animal paintings are tough. Not tough to digest, but tough to review. Like portraits and landscapes, animal paintings are what they are—they depict, though not necessarily through ideas. They are meant to look a certain way. Mostly they are meant to entice a viewer by technique, use of color, or style.
The show Contemporary Bear Area Artists at Sullivan Goss Gallery thematically brings together works by five artists around the intention of helping and/or saving bears in the wild. It is not entirely clear how the exhibition meets this objective, but this is a good-looking show.
The small works by Pamela Kendall Schiffer stand out. The photorealist paintings of bears juxtaposed with the vastness of Western landscapes have a touch of the old-school sublime. The two paintings “Afternoon, Yellowstone” and “Early Spring, Yellowstone” read like film-stills from a wildlife documentary or a spaghetti Western. In “Early Spring,” the bear is seen walking off into the distance like John Wayne in “The Searchers,” an early Western that introduced the now familiar trope. The painting presents the bear as heroic, despite its small size, but like the cowboy in the Western, the bear’s existence is endangered and in peril.
Schiffer’s paintings share common ground with the well-known painter Caspar David Friedrich—the somber landscapes and the ambiguous relationship between subject and background. Are we meant to contemplate mortality, cheer for the bear, or accept the bear’s resolute solitary existence as admirable? One thing is for sure, unlike Friedrich’s “Wanderer” there is no mistaking the bear’s downcast view. It is an anthropocentric gaze of domination or a stare into the abyss.
The other artists in the show also handle their craft well. Nicole Strasburg channels Luc Tuymans in her painting “Freefall” and Adonna Khare and Susan McDonnell’s handling of their mediums are impeccable.
Contemporary Bear Area Artists will be on exhibit at Sullivan Goss An American Gallery, 11 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, from July 15 to September 16, 2018.