Kimberly Merrill, “Unleashed”
Artist Statement
May 2009

 

Last July (2008), I decided to paint a series of dog paintings in the spirit of the 19th century European dog painters. These painters portrayed the everyday life of the dogs of their time, with academic prowess, creating masterworks no less worthy than any other painting genre. In studying these paintings, I realized that even with the surge in representational painting today, animal painting as a genre, largely follows a Modernist aesthetic, and is rarely seen in fine art or academic art circles. I want to bridge the divide, both as an academic painter and as a dog lover and present dogs, not as one-dimensional stereotypes, but as living breathing spirits. In each painting, it is the domesticated individual, along with their wild heritage that I hope to capture and memorialize, and in doing so, bring the same dignity to them that they bring to our lives every day.

I have been a fan of 19th century painters for a long time and in my perusing of paintings, would often come across dog paintings. I would be moved in a way that I am never moved by contemporary dog paintings and began to ask myself why. The most obvious answer was simply that they were beautifully painted. Irrelevant of what is being represented, if it is beautifully composed and executed, it can be moving and a joy to look at. The art world has spent a century berating beauty and technique as void of meaning or relevance, but a new generation of painters, including myself, is embracing the painting traditions of the past. We are less concerned with ‘process’ as content and more concerned with using technical skill to create images that express our ideas, experiences, hopes and, yes, often the beauty that surrounds us, from the mundane objects illuminated by fleeting sunlight to the expansive landscape or portrait. Throughout the last century, there were artists that held onto these traditions and kept them alive and to them, now our mentors, we owe a great debt of gratitude. The years they spent training themselves has made our journey markedly easier.

Beyond just technique, painters such as, Rosa Bonheur, Landseer, Maud Earl and Oudry brought a life force, a sense of sentience and quiet dignity to the nature of dogs/animals and our relationship to them. In the summer of 2007, I saw the Oudry exhibit, ‘Oudry’s Painted Menagerie’, at the Getty and was profoundly moved by his work. His sophisticated use of color and value was pivotal in the ‘atmosphere’, and therefore, mood you feel in the images. The subtle relationships of color and value create this ‘magic’, even though you cannot ‘paint air’; the effect is as if you did. Oudry’s awe at nature, whether animal, plant or geological, is palpable in his paintings. He is obviously painting what moves him and I found comfort and confirmation in that approach. I have always felt that if I am moved by what I am painting, that will translate into the work and therefore, communicate with the viewer. I found this to be profoundly evident in Rosa Bonheur’s work. Even in her simple oil studies from life, of a dog or sheep lying on the ground, you can feel the admiration and appreciation of the animal and her experience of that day.

In the twentieth century, from Picasso to Warhol and beyond, the dog was represented almost as a fictional character or illustration, one-dimensional and without time or place. One exception for this era was Andrew Wyeth, who not only gave you a sense of a specific moment in time, but often an ethereal quality that gave spirit to these dogs. You sense the breath they took at the moment being depicted. This presence often brings with it a bit of melancholy, because neither we humans, nor our canine companions can live forever. This has been a common thread though out my work, whether still life, figure or canine paintings. Life is complex. It is full of joy, sadness, wonder, regrets, love, grief and passion all rolled into one; you cannot separate out one element and relate this ‘living, breathing’ experience in a painting. This is why I feel my most successful paintings have undercurrents to the obvious content of the painting. In some of these dog paintings I hope people feel a sense of time fleeting, or their own connection to nature, or a sense of confinement, the ‘gilded cage’, if you will. We all feel confined at times by our lives or circumstances and on occasion, we get glimpses of our spiritual connection to nature. Our culture has a tendency to anthropomorphize our dogs; maybe this is the reverse in action, our dogs’ nature teaching us something about ourselves.