“Animalis,” from the Latin “anima,” is an adjective meaning “having breath or soul.”
It’s an apt title for artist Helen Durant’s new show at Diehl Gallery, in which she breathes life and soul into her subjects.
The show opens with a reception at 5 p.m. Thursday and hangs in the West Broadway gallery through Feb. 12.
At first glance, Durant said, her new collection of paintings seems to be a complete departure from past work. But, she said, “In my eyes they are simply the next step in a never-ending progression of attempting to stretch the boundaries of representational renderings. I strive to give my subjects life and to create imagery that is both recognizable and also is relatable on a deeper level. It is the marriage of the spirit of my process and the spirits of my subjects.”
Durant’s process is dynamic, said Diehl’s director, Devin Hardy.
“She is constantly pushing her own boundaries to create distinct and, at times, divergent bodies of work that riff on the same theme but often have a completely different essential character,” she said. “Stylistically, the pieces in this show are still recognizable as the artist’s — the loose gestural lines, earthy palettes and intimate portrayals of animals remain a thread throughout all of her work.
“That said,” Hardy said, “she has begun to employ bolder colors, thicker applications of paint and include elements that appear to derive from a more abstract expressionist vein. I wouldn’t call this a departure, but rather an exploration of a metaphorical tributary, another fork in the river of her overall canon.”
In the past, Durant’s depictions of animals have resonated with viewers as chance encounters, bringing movement or a window into sacred life to the forefront of the canvas.
“While vestiges of those gestures remain,” Hardy said, “the new animals are blockier, more abstracted, and placed alongside mysterious lines and forms that seem referential to everyday objects without representing them outright.”
Many artists work to achieve simplicity, to distill the essence of their subjects and ideas over time. But Durant’s works are anything but simple; her subtle management of the canvas often explores different methods to elucidate her curiosity for her own craft.
“Durant is an emotional painter,” Hardy said.
Durant often reflects her mood or the current state of affairs in her own life in her paintings, or, as Hardy put it, whatever inspires her and brings fire to her heart and to her brush.
“In her last solo exhibition, we saw an entirely different body of work, much influenced by the isolation felt by so many during the pandemic,” Hardy said. “The new pieces still have a bit of that haunting quality, but also feel like an emergence and have a sense of growth in them that seems at once personal to the artist as much as to her process.”
Two works at Diehl Gallery already stand out as exemplary: “The Decision” and “The Magistrate,” with the latter considered the strongest of the show.
“There is an undeniable sense of power, stylistically, in subject, and even in the title,” Hardy said. “The bison depicted is regal, almost as if presiding over something anciently significant. The black line work is bolder than her usual soft charcoal gestures and the red and purple hues are electric and striking.”
Hardy notes “a more primordial version of communication” in Durant’s new works. Like an involuntary placeholder, she is capturing the timeless sense that all beings are connected. ￼
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