An exhibition that conjures up images or echoes of fairy tales, Marc Chagall’s avant-gardism and Terry Sawchuk has got something very deep and vivid going on.
Such is the case with “New Works: A Two Man Show,” with paintings and drawings from Dave Sheppard and Darren Whalen, opening at the Emma Butler Gallery in St. John’s Saturday.
Their sensibility is open to influences ranging from the autobiographical and anatomical to the literary and otherworldly.
These two strong, young visual artists share a certain naturalistic and gentle palette and a great deftness with realism. The former uses a lot of greys and browns and the latter may seem a strange term to apply to visions of young women nightgowned and barefoot on the Newfoundland cliffs in March, or a rabbit and a fox arrayed in a scene of Dostoyevskian implications, but in every instance the works are rendered with tactile and plausible detail.
Sheppard’s pieces include five oil and canvas paintings and five works in watercolour and drawing. Three of the paintings are a series of figures, human forms with animal heads, in tableaus.
In “An Affection Revisited,” two figures are clasped or grappled together, one holding the other; of the pair in “Blood in the Snow,” one is prone in the snow, the second knelt down beside but looking away towards something or someone else.
These are striking and ambiguous, scenes from a powerful unfolding drama. The clothing is both contemporary and resonant of an earlier period, Depression-era or before, with the lines of dress and cut of jacket. The configuration is theatrical and heightened by the subjects’ embodiment of both people and creatures. Their human physicality is adroitly created, and yet they possess something more than that.
Other works, such as “The Aquarium,” bring Sheppard’s metaphoric vocabulary into a new frame. Here stands a human skeleton, headed with a fish skeleton, the torso surrounded by swimming goldfish, with two red fish at its breast.
In his artist’s statement, Sheppard says these works are all from a larger series titled “Inhaling,” and this interest in also overt in one of the mixed medias, which shows a heart composed of clustered fish.
Sheppard has also noted, in the past, that his work is not surreal; surrealism is quite specifically linked to dream analysis and the unconscious and Sheppard’s approach is something else, totemic and symbolic and incredibly lifelike.
Whalen’s paintings, too, are brilliantly credible, filled with character and expression. Most are big and in three of them a face fills or more than fills the canvas. Again there is a potent sense of allegory, even with “Terry Sawchuk.”
Of course, Sawchuk was a real professional hockey goalie, but his record (and his death) have made him a legend and that is what emanates from the brutally scarred face (modelled on its own possibly apocryphal image).
“Haunted” shows a young woman, a girl really, her eyes looking down, her red hoodie drawn up over her head. Every aspect alludes to Red Riding Hood, not just in the clothes but also the awareness and the suggestion of looming dark adventure.
In “Sheilagh’s Brush” the subject, again a young woman, is brought right out of herself and cast into a story that finds her in a white nightdress, with nothing on her feet in the snow and scruff, under a pearl-toned squally sky.
Whalen writes that his paintings are intended “to capture a … sense of curiosity of life, death, sensuality and identity.”
His work, and Sheppard’s, with their legerdemain of signs and sagas, does this, and more.
“New Works: A Two Man Show” continues at Emma Butler Gallery until Nov. 4.