Between Real and Make-Believe

Animals have feelings, too.
Animals have feelings, too. // Yale University

Currently at the Yale Center for British Art, the animal and human creations of British sculptor Nicola Hicks exist in an oxymoronic space. The exhibit’s program describes her life-sized creatures as both “realistic and mythical by turn.” The sculptures, which consist of either plaster, straw and plaster, or bronze, look so messy that, at first glance, they no more resemble real beings than hazy pencil sketches. The bits of straw left uncovered by plaster and the bumps on the bronze render these figures unfamiliar, even while we recognize their shapes. Yet this strangeness lends more realism to the sculptures’ textures — more so, even, than if they had been as smooth as the Greco-Roman busts that also populate the museum.

The exhibition contains seven works, the most compelling among them being those that portray animals with uncannily human expressions; still, the two busts of people are well-crafted, too. The exhibit includes: “Aesop” (2011, plaster), an earthy-toned bust of the animal skin-clad ancient Greek storyteller; “Limbic Champion” (2003, bronze), another bust of a glowering minotaur (evoking images of the Daedulus labyrinth that caged the man-bull hybrid); and “Black” (2012, plaster and straw), a full body sculpture of a bear whose stance suggests both strength and wariness. Most of the collection is fantastic — its only weak element is “Foal” (2009-2010, painted bronze), a creature with a horse’s head and a man’s torso. Here, Hick’s disordered approach to sculpting loses its control and finesse, so the resulting product lacks the detail and emotional presence of her other pieces.

The most affecting piece is “Who was I Kidding” (2011, plaster and straw), which depicts the donkey from Aesop’s fable “The Donkey in the Lion’s Skin.” The sculpture represents the animal’s state after his lion guise is discovered and he is exposed as a donkey. His head droops, his body slackens and the lion’s skin hangs pathetically from his back. Fittingly, the eyes are not as visible as they are on the other sculptures. The addition of weepy eyes would have Disney-fied this already-anthropomorphized creature. Hicks displays the emotions and the magic of her animals without resorting to cartoonish sentimentality.

The exhibit not only showcases Hicks’ work, but also places it in conversation with the YCBA’s more traditional human and animal paintings. The animals in the artwork, with emotions in their eyes ranging from humility to affection, are appropriately touching. But viewed alongside Hicks’ at once realistic and otherworldly sculptures, the gallery’s human portraits appear almost unremarkable. Then again, it is perhaps more striking to see human emotion depicted in animals than in humans themselves.

What works as a better accompaniment for Hicks’ sculptures are the various landscape paintings that inhabit the same space. Their beautiful, almost fantastical imagery successfully places her beings into a mystical yet natural space. But in truth, Hicks’ works at the YCBA do well on their own — any additional artistic support or context is simply an adornment for the vivid world she has created.

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