Not content with animals as marvelous as the dolphin or as magnificent as the peacock -- animals suitable for watching, eating, petting, riding, wearing or worshipping -- humans have invented animals who walk only in the imagination.
Unicorns, dragons, sphinxes, animals with human heads, humans with animal heads, flying mammals, enormous birds, creatures of forbidden alliances, with mouths that breath fire and destruction or utter prophecies, stalk wth wilder corners of mankind's collective fantasy.
From the dark, some-stained caves peer the artist's first efforts to draw animals. From the first, art was seen as a form of magic, a way of capturing the essence of the animal. (Draw the deer, it will appear.) Sometimes the artists made objects in the form of animals with the hope that the lion's head, or the snake's tongue or the deer's legs would transfer the animal's courage, guile or speed.
In the Chinese, Egyptian and Dresden exhibits at the National Gallery of Fine Arts, cat gods, swan boats, fire-spitting dogs frozen in gold, silver and jewels have attested to human's fascination with exotic beasts. New, Renwick Gallery curator Michael Monroe has assembled a collection of modern artists' manifestations of animal magic.
"The animal Image: Contemporary Objects and the Beast" is at the Renwick through Aug. 30. A splendid catalogue, with essays by Monroe and Joshua Taylor, head of the Renwick's parent National Museum of American Art, accompanies the show. The Renwick is producing a fine series of publications on contemporary crafts.
The 114 objects are evenly divided between the beautiful and the beastly.
Some are sculptures, some are useful, and some are neither. The show stretches across a long range of taste. The well-formed, well-designed, intricately crafted works of art are as beautiful as anything ever made in Renaissance Italy. The ordinary, the obscene, the horrible and perhaps worse, the cutesy are as bad as anything from a German procelain factory. All are worth a look, even though you may not be able to look at some twice.
The jewelry is the best. With jewelry, the artist has felt first the obligation to beauty.
A fine and sterling silver, gold, brass, ruby and pearl knitted peacock necklace by Mary Lee Hu is the single most beautiful object in the show. Hu has knitted a nest of precious threads to hold a proud peacock whose beady eye transfixes the observer.
The silver "acquatic form," a fish who has somehow acquired two garnet eyes on one side was made by Marcia Lewis to swim with grace across a fabric sea.
Neptune, a necklace cast and fabricated of sterling silver and pearls, by Richard Mawdsley, is wonderfully made. Neptune has wings, a long tail and perhaps a rudimentary U-boat, all dangling from an anchor. It is by no means as beautiful as Hu's work, but it makes it on being a marvel, though it doesn't excape cuteness.
In "Animal Bowl Black," made by Stephen Dale Edwards with blown, cased and sandblasted glass, animals who could have stalked across a cave wall walk again. The bowl captures the mystery and magic of animals.
"Palace," a miniature stage setting by Hannah Stills, is the sort of thing you could stare at forever. Where is this myusterious state bedroom with gold festoons, curios paintings, rococo boisere , scrolled and curlicued gold leaf mirror, its winged bust, mosiac floor and art deco bed surmonted with a crown canopy, all contained in a space 11 1/2 inches high, 32 1/2 inches wide and 24 1/2 inches long? And who are those penguins and why do they look at home?
The cape by Lynn Di Nino, titled "You'll Never Walk Alone," is difficult to assess. The design is handsome, but why did she waste her work on nylon fleece, a cheapy material, for a design that called for a sumptous velvet. And do those flamingoes really need to ride around the neck?
"Shooting Gallery" by Barbara Walter, a sort of fake perpetual motion machine, with bunny rabbits as motif power, is in the great tradition of machines that only work to amuse.
The table supproted on two wooden dogs holding bones by Judy Kensley McKiestill is still in the vice-president's residence (one of the few pieces collected by Joan Mondale and kept by Barbara Bush). In the Renwick show her "Sly Chair" is not as successful as the dog table. Its crocodile heads as arm finials would discourage resting your arms.
Larger-than-human figures are made by Joan Danzinger of painted resin reinforced fabric on a metal structure. The artist says the figures are people pretending to be animals. But they may be animals playing at being people so successfully that they've fooled her. The Renwick work, "Waiting Room," is 70 inches high, 84 inches wide and 54 inches deep. As always, this Washington artist has succeeded in making a work that is funny, frightening and somehow philosphical.
Anne Arnold's Frog," who is really an afghan, is handbuilt of stone ware. He looks like a nice dog, stylish, but perhaps not too clever. You know she has a live one just like human at home.
A true fool-the-eye work by Ron Iascs, "Sparrow Box," is in the great tradition -- only this one is made of painted plywood.
Some of the ceramics, notably Jamie Davis's thrown and raku-fired clay with glazes, are very handsome.
Some of the works are very well crafted but their grotesque design gives me bad dreams, even in the daytime, as do all those 18th-century paintings of dead animals. Not that there's anything dead about these animals, they look far too alive for safety. The painted clay work chosen for the preview invitation shows a woman's body with three gander heads. When I look at "Gandress" by Jugo de Vegetales, I'm afraid of being pecked.
Jack Earl's painted whiteware ceramic work, "Where Are My Slippers," shows a man whose head has been transformed into a sofa for his dog. I feel threatened when I look at it. Lucky I don't have a dog.
Beverly Mayerihs "Medusa Head" is another painted clay work. So many using this technique are in the show they constitute a trend.At first glance, the head seems to be rather pleasant. When you look closer you see that what you thought were curls are really horrible animals all trying to escape. The face looks only mildly surprised.
Ann Adair's handbuilt and glazed porcelain "Two Alligators Playing Pool" strikes some people as amusing. I am not one of them.
Dan White's brass and silver "Supersonic Chicken" has a bomb door that opens to eject an egg.
Today, the gory and grotesque are the prime themes of films, novels and television. This exhibit shows that not all artists have not escaped the fog of horror creeping into our lives.