Aesop’s Fables are filled with stories of animals that take on human emotions and face human dilemmas. Foibles like vanity and greed, as well as examples of compassion, are played out.
In these small dramas, we can see ourselves.
Artist Laurie Hogin doesn’t illustrate the stories of Aesop, but in the exhibition Implacable Demons and Better Angels she demonstrates a predilection for portraying animal characters reacting to their world — and they do so in a way that is utterly relatable to us as humans.
This mirroring characterizes her work, but the first element we notice is the amazingly vivid color of her oil paintings.
Currently on view at Tory Folliard Gallery, the brilliant orange birds or the deep-green, strange mushrooms on a forest floor are intriguing.
Alligator creatures pause and reflect, snakes slither quietly, but most notable as key players are the rabbits and monkeys.
Humble bunny rabbits are painted with angst, delirium and thoughtful intensity.
This may sound hard to fathom in a little bunny, but in the way Hogin paints, they are not placid. They are riled by tempestuous emotive storms of all sorts.
Monkeys are even more direct stand-ins for humanity, with expressive faces and mouths that combine science fiction and fantasy in artistic form.
Hogin also has a touch of irony, particularly in her words.
One charcoal, chalk and ink series is extensively titled Seven Votive Gargoyles to Protect Your Home, Business, Car, Truck or R.V. for the Spectrum of the Week: Red Monday, Orange Tuesday, Yellow Wednesday, Green Thursday, Blue Friday, Violent Saturday and Magenta Sunday.
The aforementioned gargoyles are spritely creatures, drawn as small portraits, each with weird and varied expressions. Some are quizzically sympathetic, like the first in the series. It bears the inscription, “We drive you from us whoever you may be, all crazy voices / all satanic posers, all infernal agents / all wicked legions, assemblies and sects.”
Yes, we could all use that invocation sometimes.
Hogin says, “My work is always influenced by the political and social conditions at the time I am making it and, although the show isn’t directly political in any kind of literal, partisan way, the newer works in this exhibition are influenced by recent developments.”
Laurie Hogin’s “Sugar Trilogy II: Smack.”
The undercurrents of uncertainty and nefarious events are palpable.
Often the works are grouped in series or pairs. One duo features paintings of a startled red-brown and white rabbit. In each, the rabbit is placed in a wild nature setting filled with brilliantly colored foliage. The saturated hues are one of the elements that makes things so uncanny. It is nature but unnaturally colored. Still, the implied narrative and expression loom largest. In Portrait of a Startled Rabbit Near a Culvert, the rabbit has its mouth opened wide while, in the background, fires burn on a mountainside. Set in the distance, the blazes are diminutive but harbingers of disastrous events.
Blinding hues of contemporary advertising
The Sugar Trilogy is an even more pointed commentary on contemporary issues. We know sugar and chemical food concoctions can make kids squirrelly and then some — even big kids in their 30s or 40s. Cereal packages’ cartoon mascots — like the floppy, fun, white bunny parading for Trix cereal — are delightful marketing shills. What’s to fear from a cute rabbit who just wants to have some crunchy bright cereal for himself?
We go down the rabbit hole in Hogin’s paintings. Sugar Trilogy I: Trix is a meticulously painted white hare on a pristine tablecloth where a few of the supercharged cereal particles are scattered. The rabbit’s eyes have gone bloodshot red and his gaping mouth seems ready to drip with fearsome drool. Also part of the trilogy is a blindingly green frog of Sugar Smacks fame, as well as the cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs bird, brilliantly bronze and demonically possessed. Good morning, indeed.
The thing about Hogin’s work is that for all the oddities that lurk, her painterly skill makes them captivating. She notes the Day-Glo colors of her palette are meant to reflect the blinding hues of contemporary media and advertising. Perhaps we are conditioned to pay attention to brilliant, bright things, but the subtle suggestions of narrative and Hogin’s artistry give her canvases a lasting presence that goes far beyond the shallow seductions of advertising.
Laurie Hogin: Implacable Demons and Better Angels continues through Feb. 4 at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee.
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