Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TRUTH AND ART

I was asked the other day about the veracity of the cover of my book, Rigor Vitae. The painting (above) shows a trio of African Softshell Turtles (Trionyx triunguis) startled from their perch atop the back of a Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) that appears to be lurching in a threatening way towards an unknown target. So how representative of reality is this painting?

I can best answer this question be retracing my thinking in its conception. The adjectives that spring to mind when I think of softshell turtles are: active, fast, graceful, and above all, intelligent (as turtles go). The species T. triunguis is one of the smartest of the bunch; observations in both wild and captive specimens have shown they can spend over half their waking time engaged in play behavior. Even though this consists of underwater, hunting-related exercises, the knowledge inspired me to approach the piece with an air of whimsy.

In my work, I nearly always try to deal with truths of natural history, but different truths call for different approaches. More often than not, the approach is a direct sort of story-telling that's not difficult to understand. When I invent a situation I've never seen nor heard of, biological credibility is an important consideration. The initial idea of this painting, African Softshells basking on a Hippo, is just such a situation, and the placing of my protagonists on that platform was done with a clear conscience. Although they spend a great deal of time basking, I don't feel that this static activity defines softshells' essence well at all. The painting called for fury and for speed, so I set the whole thing in motion, in that instant of my initial basking concept's irrevocable replacement with an absent hippo and the turtles returned to their brisk native depths. Caught in midair, the main subject's placement strains the limits of credibility, especially considering the fact he'd be more likely to favor a quick downward slide. In placing him, I tried to find the highest conceivable point such a reptile could reach if all factors of friction and inertia could be favorably aligned. The entire composition is built around enforcing the painting's movement: the surface ripples, the Papyrus stems, the flock of St. Helena Waxbills, and a mysterious arc of water all cooperate in a scene theoretically possible, yet so unlikely as to disqualify it as an illustration of animal behavior. But is it a betrayal of my “natural history truth” objective? I answer with a firm “No.” Exaggerated, contrived and skewed, I could never create a painting containing more truth about African Softshells.



Anthropomorphism is a present danger whenever engaging in such exaggeration. My rule of thumb is to take care when when comparing a non-human's behavior to my own, but when the situation is reversed to throw caution to the wind. Emotions and instincts are identical in some cases, analogous in the rest, and indulging instincts accords a certain satisfaction. In Call of the Monsoon (above), a Couch's Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii) rises from subterranean summertime torpor to feed and breed in the monsoon moisture. Again, the subject's position here is anatomically possible, yet not typical, even a bit exaggerated: a bit like a purring cat. The intent is to stretch the immediate truth a bit to express a greater truth than a photographic representation could, without falling into the mire of anthropomorphism.
_____________________
upper: HIPPOPOTAMUS & NILE SOFTSHELL TURTLES (1995) acrylic 20" x 30"
lower: CALL OF THE MONSOON--COUCH'S SPADEFOOT (1996) acrylic 18" x 12"

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