Lisa Shimko has a thing for eyes. Fish, owls, bears, bunnies, and a herd of musk oxen stare at the viewer in a way that belies the painter’s playful, abstract backgrounds. In a range of styles from abstract to surrealism, Shimko’s latest series Stop Making Fence seems to suggest that viewers should leave their scrutiny at the door. In her latest exhibit, goldfish swim through the branches of an oak tree, an elephant crosses a high wire, and viewers have the freedom to make up their own minds about animals that have migrated beyond their fences, with eyes that beckon us to follow.
Shimko’s naturalistic paintings of birds and fruit gained recognition in 2008, when “Tomato Seed” was chosen for the official Farmers Market poster. The image was well suited to the Farmers Market because beneath the Shimko’s pretty pictures are layers of environmental activism. A tomato is never just a tomato; it is a piece of food representing sustainability and bio-diversity. It’s art with a purpose.
In Stop Making Fence, Shimko has assembled a body of work that seems to be moving in a new direction. The paintings are varied in size and style, and many seem looser, as if moving away from an implied intellectual message has allowed the artist some freedom. “Blue Rabbit” is the most Alice in Wonderland-like painting, featuring a charming blue bunny wearing sparkly red high heels, perched on a large green chair with a snow globe at her feet. Three dome rooftops grow out of the top of the chair, and flowers surround the four legs of the chair like water. The living, breathing aspects of Shimko’s work, the trees and animals, take center stage, and in cases like the “Blue Rabbit,” the background can’t compete. With the absurdity of the blue bunny comes a refreshing playfulness, a freedom from wondering about endangered species and our relationships with the natural world.
“Mother and Child” is one of three figure paintings, though SCOOP co-owner Colleen Deihl says that this is a recurring theme in Shimko’s work. Feathers create a tribal vibe in this intimate pose. “Sleep Owl” was created for the recent Re:Nude show benefiting Planned Parenthood, and its ivory, abstract naked form with circular breasts seems like an homage to Picasso’s reclining nudes.
Other influences, such as Salvador Dali, are present in the more surrealistic paintings like “Time,” which presents a Macaque monkey sitting on a swing clutching an old-fashioned gold stopwatch. Again, it’s the piercing eyes of the monkey that keep you from caring much about anything else. Colors are muted and less vibrant in “Time” and “Defense,” featuring the musk oxen. Even when her art stands for weighty issues, Shimko’s color choices almost always keep the images from being somber.
Shimko’s scope has zoomed out, and while the backgrounds are not always as compelling as the soulful eyes of her main characters, the larger scope gives the viewer a chance to dream. Maybe Stop Making Fence means that this artist, like her wide-eyed animals, cannot be contained.