The Goddess Returns
On display through Dec. 28
62 Queen St.
The best thing about www.doyoulooklikeyourdog.com is the total lack of resemblance between the owners and their pets. On this mystifyingly popular website, various adults pose with their pooches. There is one gent who matches his Dalmatian, only because he’s wearing a polka-dotted jacket.
Of course, we don’t have to look like members of the animal kingdom to get along with them. Massachusetts-based oil painter Jennie Summerall takes the theme of human-animal harmony to an extreme with her triumphant new show, The Goddess Returns.
In each portrait, a classically handsome hominid hangs out with a bird or animal. Any buoyant cuteness is weighed down by references to human history — there are aspects of Ancient Egyptian, Mediterranean, and Medieval European art here. Summerall is partial to profiles, two-dimensional tableaux, and uncluttered composition. Faces are suggested with a few simple features. Bodies are painted with rounded, flowing lines. Above all, the humans often have serious expressions that suggest they’re burdened by some classic mythological dilemma.
Some of the paintings feature deities from tales of antiquity. The wise Athena makes a cameo attended by an owl. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is surrounded by tracking dogs. A nude female figure, inspired by an Isis figurine, makes repeated appearances beside birds.
These calm divinities are at one with nature. Some of them, like Diana, could have been part-bird themselves. By incorporating these eco-savvy spirits into her work, Summerall portrays a state of mind and state of being that she’d like herself and others to achieve. Where once we worshipped our environment and its animal inhabitants, we now destroy them.
The artist tempers her eco-pessimism with joyful, comforting colors. She adores pink and red and it shows. The gods and saints wear pastel-colored haloes and the backgrounds are often a pale pink or mottled blue. The restrained Grecian color scheme works well with the matte effect Summerall gives her paintings — she doesn’t use much varnish — giving them a fresco feel. Because of that, even the more modern pieces like “Duo” and “Peacock Sleeper” seem like they’ve been plucked from an art museum. The fresco quality is particularly successful when she’s painting saints, with egg-filled beards or plaintive expressions.
Summerall isn’t afraid to experiment with composition as well as color. For these new paintings, she’s “zoomed in” more than usual. Sometimes a face, a hand, or a bird fills half the canvas, suggesting a detail from a larger piece of one side of a Grecian urn.
“St. Kevin and the Blackbird” is the most ambitious painting in the show, with a landscape and a strong narrative element (man meets bird, bird builds nest in his hand, man waits patiently for eggs to hatch). Yet Summerall arranges the piece to emphasize St. Kevin’s hand and eyes, inviting us to “zoom in” by ourselves. In other instances, the animals are enlarged for emphasis. In “Pigeon’s Gift,” for example, a man-sized bird shares a frame with a surprised-looking guy.
This Dark Age disregard for perspective and the artist’s naive touches (such as the simply drawn expressions) won’t be for everyone, and some of her patterned backgrounds break the medieval mood. There are even a few polka dots thrown in, perhaps to keep Dalmatian lovers happy.
But the sheer quantity and quality of the work is outstanding, and The Goddess Returns evokes a yearning for more straightforward times when man had to share his world with other creatures just to survive from day to day — possibly explaining why some owners would like to look like their pets.