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Women and Beasts



Women and animals have long been among the favored subjects of artists going all the way back to the Renaissance. Of course, most renaissance artists were European males, white dudes, so women and persons of other races, as well as other species, had to wait to join the ranks of the maestros. Today all that has changed, as women and minorities appear increasingly among the ranks of the most influential artists of our time, and even animals are having a go at it, if news stories about abstract paintings by elephants in Thailand are any indication.

Women and beasts appear as subjects of contemporary female artists as well, sometimes rendered with near-Renaissance flair, as we see in Atlanta artist C. Dawn Davis's paintings at Sylvia Schmidt. Italian Renaissance attire appears often, typically on pretty if pouty young women, nubile cupcakes posed with a variety of fowl, or even monkeys. In Proclivities a honey-blond honey in the buff saunters on a bluff, preceded by a strutting sea bird holding a mysterious disk in its beak. A dog forlornly sniffs her foot as a monkey on its back, dressed as Gainsborough's Blue Boy, shrieks like an ape in a Francis Bacon painting. It's a study in expressive contrast: the monkey looks hysterical, the dog looks bored and the girl looks like she's not sure where she left her clothes. But the sandpiper may be on to something. What is clear is that Davis can paint like a virtuoso illustrator.

In Venetian Still Life, a disheveled, wild-haired babe who looks like she just escaped from a depraved marquis holds a tray with an hourglass and other curious bric-a-brac in front of her otherwise bare breasts. A sepia view of Venice floats behind her, and it all looks opulent and decadent, although the girl herself looks like a Georgia peach who got in a little over her head. In Savage Sideshow a similar young woman relaxes with her falcon. She wears a baroque blouse, purple tights and a pouty expression as her falcon ponders the sparrow it just killed. The babe looks a little wasted herself, as if from a long night, adding to the debauched aura. All of which is curious considering how the femmes in question seem, if not innocent then at least parochial, like the pampered daughters of escrow managers from Charlotte, Macon or north Atlanta. Anyone familiar with the Southeast knows the look: mall girls. Davis has a way with paint, and if it's not always clear what she's up to, she at least does it with great flair and precision.

Kelli Scott Kelley is no stranger to beasts, antiquity and baroque flourishes, yet her imagery is somehow unexpected, and more surreal than this sounds. Inspired by the rich, red hues and curious scenes found on murals in Pompeii -- and especially in the aptly titled Villa of Mysteries -- Kelley weaves modern, pre-modern and postmodern sensibilities into her strangely stark canvasses. The Watcher is fairly typical. Here a woman, with a bird beak where her nose and mouth would be, stares at something just beyond the borders of the canvas. Dressed in robes, she holds a bird in each hand, while on the Pompeii red wall behind her amorous goings-on are sketchily delineated. Painted in broad swatches of color in flat pre-Renaissance perspective, The Watcher recalls not only the murals of antiquity but also retablos, those Mexican holy paintings on metal that so often depict saints, miracles and the like. Others incorporate many-armed Hindu deities or even Tweety, the little bird who appeared with Sylvester the cat in old Looney Tunes cartoons. Or sometimes Tweetie's eyes will appear in the lenses of binoculars wielded by an otherwise human figure. If all this seems chaotic, it's not, or at least not as chaotic as it sounds, perhaps because these often conflicting concepts have been reduced to minimally rendered forms, and forms can be visually compatible even when what they symbolize is not. Still, it's the more subtle efforts that are often the most successful here, in paintings where less really is more, and where the open spaces of the canvas beckon invitingly to the meandering impulses of the imagination.

The woman in C. Dawn Davis' Savage Sideshow shows the artist has a way with paint in illustrating that parochial example of some Southern women: the mall girl.
  • The woman in C. Dawn Davis' Savage Sideshow shows the artist has a way with paint in illustrating that parochial example of some Southern women: the mall girl.

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