In the world of Thomas Frontini's paintings, the whale and the woodchuck are creatures of equal dignity.
In "The Other Shore," a sperm whale languishes on a dry outcropping of rock, imploring with a beady downcast eye and groaning mouth bisecting a third of its body. Its tragedy is that of the mighty fallen.
In "Of This Only, Solitary Beast," the woodchuck crawls, but is not a creature of the ground; he holds his chin high, tilting an eye up to meet the viewer's. Paws full of long talons underwrite his confidence.
The reversal of power dynamics, in which the whale is powerless and the groundhog strikes a warrior's pose, is hardly the most Surrealistic element in Frontini's Eremite, Views and Vistas. The exhibition by the Canadian-born, Cleveland-based painter's oils on linen and panel is now on display at William Busta Gallery.
Returning to "Other Shore," the horizon to the left of the whale is blue sea. At the right, it is several inches lower, and divided into bands of pink and green. Either vista makes spatial sense taken alone, but taken together, the two dislocate the viewer and inform him or her they are in a dream world.
In "Solitary Beast," the horizon is even but utterly featureless, a stretch of white-green stretching at a white-blue sky. The woodchuck towers over a stone hill, topped by a broccoli-sized tree, into which a square door is hewn.
The stone cave reappears throughout Frontini's series. It is never more than an inch high. Sometimes, a vertical dash of gray topped by a dot of brown representing a human person occupies the doorway. One is tempted to identify him with the "eremite" (holy hermit) of the show's title, but what the eremite represents is less clear. Perhaps he is a witness to the appearances of animals.
Both the whale and woodchuck mount flat stone steps, and other beasts -- deer and horses and elephants -- stand on similar platforms. The stone elevates them, as if they stood on a stage or witness stand. They stand or lie with human calm, while maintaining inhuman strength, grace, or bulk. One feels these mixtures of man and beast carry weighty meanings, like the bird and jackal-faced idols of dead Nile religions, even if those meanings cannot be pinned down.
Some animals do not look like the ones we would encounter in the woods or the zoo, but those we would find in a medieval bestiary, where a third of the indexed fauna were known to the artist only by secondhand descriptions. "Forgotten Ferret" features a black creature with a long snout, a squirrel's tail, and shriveled but unmistakably human ears. A terrier in "The Grass is Greener" has no ears at all.
To mention the anatomical incorrectness of Frontini's works is not to disparage them. Strict realism is, historically and conceptually, a strange artistic ideal. The uniqueness of Frontini's animals allows us to consider them not as samples of species. Instead, they are individual characters whose features, whatever they present or lack, communicate personalized statements. The ferret's suspicious sneer and the terrier's round, beaming eyes command our attention.
Save for the misery of "The Other Shore," Eremite never shocks, but by the time it has been taken in, the viewer has been dislocated. The paintings' effects culminate into a sort of meditation, on space and the power of art and figure. .
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