Art Beat: Celebrating our 'Four Legged Friends' at New Bedford's Gallery X

Animals loom large in our complex collective imagination. They range from big bad wolves to Willard’s rats, from King Kong to killer bees, and from the serpent in the Garden of Eden to snakes on a plane.

In reality, animals have been feared predators, spreaders of pestilence, beasts of burden, and subjects of cruel scientific experimentation. They have been hunted for sport, their heads mounted on walls, and their bodies taxidermied in celebration of conquest of the planet. Their environments have been destroyed by war, pollution, global warming and greed.

Animals have been caged in zoos, circuses and private collections since time immemorial. Their fur, hides, wool and feathers are taken for clothing, comfort and adornment. Their eggs, milk, organs and very flesh are taken for consumption. None of this is judgmental, it is just fact.

The current exhibition of art about animals at Gallery X is having none of that.

Titled “Four Legged Friends,” it is a showing of dozens of paintings, drawings, sculptures, carvings, photographs and works in other media that embrace the animal kingdom in a very particular way: as our friends.

"Jael," by Eileen Riley.
"Jael," by Eileen Riley.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer as the exhibited work is not limited to images of quadrupeds by any means. Birds, in particular, are abundant. The vast majority of the creatures depicted fall into two categories: pets and barnyard animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, cows, ducks, chickens and the like; along with a smattering of wild animals, including songbirds, corvines, zebras, and a leopard (or maybe that was a cheetah).

It’s all good. After all, there are real friends, fair weather friends, imaginary friends, and frenemies, and animals make perfect metaphors for them all.

Tom Brejcha’s “Fireside Dogs” is a perfectly charming and off-kilter painting of two lap dogs, one with its bright red tongue dangling, and the other with an all too-human face. They each sit atop footstools, while in the background, a fire blazes in the hearth and snow is visible in the window.

"Fireside Dogs," by Tom Brejcha.
"Fireside Dogs," by Tom Brejcha.

It is equal parts “Ren & Stimpy,” George Roderiques’s “Blue Dog,” and the iconic kitsch masterpiece “Dogs Playing Poker.”

Jane Boynton’s painting ”Where Do the Children Play?” features a hen, likely a Rhode Island red, with brilliant scarlet plumage, against a midrange blue sky on a field of muted yellow. It works as both an homage to the fowl, but also as a vibrant, expressionist flurry of (mostly) primary colors.

"Where do the Children Play," by Jane Boynton.
"Where do the Children Play," by Jane Boynton.

A small, three-dimensional mixed media work by Susan Hauck is called “Trixie.” It is a pachyderm that is small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand. She wears a guacamole green tutu and a carnation and she squints, all the while balancing a cocktail — a Cosmo? — on her head. Clearly, Trixie’s skin tone is intended to conjure up the classic drunkard’s hallucination of the pink elephant.

Michael Tracey exhibits two painted equine portraits. “Blue Rider” features a six-legged azure horse against a lighter background; “19” depicts a brown horse with four or maybe five limbs in front of fiery orange backdrop. They are wonderfully and purposely crude gangling glyphs. They drift into a realm of myth and mystery.

"Blue Rider," by Michael Tracey.
"Blue Rider," by Michael Tracey.

With “The Summer Road (Demarest Lloyd State Park),” Milton Brightman explores one of his most enduring and comforting motifs: man with walking stick and faithful canine companion. It always works. Brightman is a prolific and exquisite draftsman. And this painting again reveals his talent as a creative colorist. Purple shadows! Orange tree bark! Pink earthen trails!

"The Summer Road (Demarest Lloyd State Park)," by Milton Brightman.
"The Summer Road (Demarest Lloyd State Park)," by Milton Brightman.

“Riverside Park” by Kellen Riell is an engaging landscape that is enigmatic. Blue feathers fall from the sky as if a raptor had taken a jay, yet in the distance a large blue bird, as emblematic as the symbol on a superhero’s chest, rises up as if reborn, the phoenix of legend.

"Riverside Park," (detail) by Kellen Riell.
"Riverside Park," (detail) by Kellen Riell.

Other works of particular note include John Vliet’s “Spirit Horse” sculpture series; Eileen Riley’s bovine acrylic painting “Jael''; and “Wild Animals,” a collage by Susan Brandon.

"Wild Animals," by Susan Brandon.
"Wild Animals," by Susan Brandon.

And just as I finish this column, I hear a friend calling me. It’s Coco … our female pet mallard. She must want another bowl of warm peas.

“Four Legged Friends” is on display at Gallery X, 169 William St., New Bedford, through Oct. 2.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Art Beat 'Four Legged Friends' at Gallery X celebrates animals