Montanan and Western artists often have an intimate view of animals in their works, turning a unique eye toward the human-animal relationship.
This forms the idea behind Radius Gallery’s new show “Bestiarum Vocabulum,” which features 15 artists from Montana, the West and beyond, who each carry their own view on the natural world.
Gallery co-owner Lisa Simon described it as an “ultrasensitivity” between animals and people in western or more rural areas.
“You see Facebook feeds are littered with encounters of animals,” she said. “We just wanted a way to talk about it.”
Simon, herself a former literature professor, had an interest in medieval studies, specifically bestiaries, tomes that would collect images of animals, both real and mythical.
“The cool thing about them is there’s no way to differentiate between what’s a real animal,” Simon said. A drawing of a kangaroo or camel would be based on a traveler’s memory, not scientific study.
“Those images would be wildly wrong, but really beautiful,” she said. “A mix of real and imagined.”
That was part of the charge she gave the 15 participating artists, who weren’t aware their works were to be combined into a bestiary. But the art nonetheless reflects that same energy Simon found flipping through bestiary pages, animal depictions swinging from photorealistic to mythical to strangely imaginative.
Missoula artist Linda Leslie has a series of paintings done in a medieval renaissance sort of style, depicting nude women posing in lush gardens with animals real and fake.
Jennifer French, from Billings, painted two triceratops heads with a William Morris-inspired carpet pattern. Images of a fire-breathing horse and undersea animals adorn Victorian-style frames.
Jon Bonnicksen’s sculptures of hare mounts exemplify some nice ceramic technique, while his giraffe head, with tongue swinging whimsically about, is impressively realistic. The Bugs Bunny sculpture, not so much.
Dotted around the gallery are felted wool animals by Patagonia artist Claudia Paillao. The largest, an emperor penguin with chick bundled around its feet, eyes the door, while smaller fish, hummingbirds and an owl tuck in and around other pieces.
Simon purposefully didn’t give the artists much direction — she chose them for their previous work, and wanted a wide variety of pieces.
“It’s only a bestiary when they come together,” she noted.
And it’s a modern bestiary due to its contemporary art-informed perspective, which in its own way mimics the medieval version.
“We’re not striving for realism,” Simon said. “These artists are trying to depict these animals in their own minds.”
The relationship between human and animal is such that there’s very little objectivity when it comes to their artistic recreation. Certain animals are portrayed certain ways due to their reputations. On the other hand, artists try to buck that expectation. Either way leads to an image of a bird, rabbit, falcon or crab that is not exactly real.
“There’s so much projection in how we apprehend and view animals,” Simon said. “In that way, it is a bestiary.”