Animal Paintings by Sheila Isham: Open Studio
The idea of space has many meanings and functions; it is certainly an important aesthetic element when applied to both the formal creation of art and the housing of that same art. For example, we have previously examined spatial configurations in exhibits like the current Silas Marder show. Sheila Isham’s present open studio is another fascinating venue to consider space’s impact on the works being displayed.
Isham has literally been around the world, from Haiti to Russia, collecting inspirations and motivations. Regardless of her diverse travels, however, her signature works celebrate nature, often exotic animals and yes, sometimes human figures, too. Simply speaking, Isham’s worldview begins and ends with these subjects.
Isham’s studio space complements this in-depth and lofty philosophy: it is spacious and airy, with high ceilings. While many of the works are large and need extended room, some pieces are hung too high for the viewer to touch. But that’s exactly what Isham means to do. Her lioness, eagle and elephant are untouchable; we are in awe of them. No wonder they are appropriately called “Cosmic Myth.” Placed on the wall in this spatial oasis, the animals appear to be watching over us.
The works featuring individual animals are recurring, but there are other paintings that contain creatures in groups. (These creatures may include animals as well as people who also appear mythical and archetypical.) Take, for example, “Dream Sequence VI,” where a luscious orange palette defines the intermingling of a lion and human figure so they almost become one entity. “Dream Sequence I” gives the same effect, with green as the predominate color.
Isham describes another piece in the series as “mysterious,” and there’s no doubting that. This “Dream Sequence VII” particularly crosses boundaries – between what seems like spiritual characters and what seems realistic – and the symbiosis existing between the humans and animals. In this critic’s mind, this piece delineates a primary theme of Isham’s work. The background subject could surely be Christ or some other pure spirit, the idea being that we are all one and the same.
But Isham may not believe that this philosophy is easy to grasp. Her configurations are often defocused and ambiguous as animal images merge. (“Dream Sequence XII” is a salient example.) Background figures often seem lost among other subjects. While the art’s message makes a potent case for symbiotic relationships in nature, so, too, does Isham’s temporary living space where her furniture and personal objects reflect a blending with the work on the walls.
Even so, not every piece represents a balance and bond between all creatures on earth. Isham’s charcoal drawings are similarly arresting, but they present another worldview. The close-up images of a lion, bull and leopard are often in profile or incomplete. Asymmetrical composition is sometimes the case. Although symmetrical, part of the leopard’s face, particularly, is incomplete.
What are we to make of these images? That nature is not always perfect? We all know this to be true, but it bears repeating and Isham does it with eloquence and depth.
Sheila Isham’s studio exhibit (at 56 Mariner Drive in Southampton) will be open by appointment only for the next few days. Call 631-283-6297. Her book, Sheila Isham (Palace Editions/State Russian Museum), is available at Bookhampton, or at her studio.