February 09, 2017
(++++) REALER THAN REAL
Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $50.
Maybe it is only because the word “beguiled” appears in this book’s title, but the single adjective that seems most fitting to describe the book itself is “beguiling.” There is nothing else quite like the nature art of Charley Harper (1922-2007). His stylized, simplified, geometric renditions of animals of all types have the remarkable ability to make the creatures seem more clearly themselves, more definitive in some way, than they would if photographed or drawn in the hyper-realistic style of, say, James Audubon. Harper captures what makes a particular animal distinctive to us humans without anthropomorphizing any creature unduly, except to a limited extent for the sake of humor. And Harper’s humor itself is distinctive: fond of written puns and amusing artistic layouts, he uses both verbal and visual techniques to pull the reader/viewer into a piece of art and notice things that he or she only thought were clear before Harper delineated them so skillfully.
Thus, in this wonderful coffee-table book that should, at all costs, be kept away from coffee and any other potentially staining materials, one page is called Foxsimiles and shows the heads of 11 foxes – two adults and nine kits – stacked atop each other and looking directly out of the page, as if from a dark, perfectly circular den opening. Geometrically perfect too are the foxes’ triangular ears, their circular eyes and noses, their trapezoidal reddish faces. And the whimsical text complements the art perfectly, suggesting that readers “hear the din in the den at dindin, the sibling quibbling of the disputatious duplicates, the irascible replicas.” Elsewhere, Arctic Circle offers a background of stylized square and triangular ice floes and a foreground where musk oxen are lined up exactly like a line of football players, the impression accentuated by horns drawn to look just like helmets, facing off against wolves that are seen from behind, as if the camera is placed behind them – with imagined sports bravado concealing, or rather elucidating, the harsh realities of life in a harsh climate: “‘C’mon, wolf pack! Make yer play! Youse bums rush like glaciers! We’ll oxidize youse guys! We’ll bury ya in the permafrost, we’ll stomp ya unda th’ tundra!’ How’d it end up? Sudden death in overtime.” The puns, the lighthearted treatment of matters of underlying seriousness, the contrast with messy reality of the perfect geometric shapes that Harper uses to create scenes that embody the essentials of wildlife and the wild life, all while presenting animals and their habitats with striking clarity – these are the elements that are so captivating here.
Every page has its pleasures, and every page repays multiple closer looks. Tall Tail includes a road runner, facing right, that holds a lizard’s tail in its beak – the lizard itself, having shed the tail, is racing away to the left. And the road runner’s tail seems as tall and broad as the cactus right next to it – until, on closer examination, it becomes clear that Harper here plays with perspective, and that the road runner must be in the foreground, the cactus some distance away, making sense of the fact that the lizard seems to be running through the bird but in fact must be fleeing somewhere between it and the cactus. Perspective is also at play in Phancy Pheathers, a wonderful two-page look at a ring-necked pheasant, which requires the book to be turned sideways to accommodate the bird’s extremely long and elegantly patterned tail. And here Harper ruminates, “A rainbow in the snow is a better bromide for the midwinter blahs than buying a new spring outfit around the phirst of Phebruary.” Harper’s musings, however amusingly expressed, often convey matters of considerable seriousness. Green Cuisine, which shows a line of cows munching grass, each cow blending perfectly into the next so the animals look like one extremely elongated bovine, is about “harmless herbivores” that eventually become “protein for the predators,” and asks, “Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain?” A very difficult question, that – although Harper’s work certainly helps nudge nature lovers toward happiness, as well as in the direction of greater appreciation of the natural world, so he himself is part of the answer to his own rather rhetorical question.
Many of Harper’s most-intriguing works in Beguiled by the Wild feature birds: owls, painted buntings, cardinals, black skimmers, woodpeckers and more. But certain other animals also make recurring appearances, and it is hard to escape the notion that Harper simply enjoys some creatures to an exceptional degree. Foremost among these would be raccoons, whose faces Harper seems to find quite irresistible: a line of them, all black and grey, peeks into a window at the brightly wrapped Christmas gifts inside; four of them, stacked, are seen through the eaten part of a watermelon slice that they have just been enjoying; eight are standing on hind legs next to and behind each other for a “masked ball in the backyard” whenever food is about; a whole passel of them may be seen peeking from behind a woodpile, scouting out a skunk who is quietly consuming some sort of food that the raccoons are clearly thinking about purloining as soon as they can figure out how to avoid provoking an odor attack; and more. With this last picture, called Raccoonnaissance, Harper makes some of his interest in this particular creature quite clear: “Raccoons have the brain. High in IQ, cutes, cunning, and caution, they move into the suburbs with their upwardly mobile lifestyle. Raccoons will scatter your garbage, trash your property, and charm you right out of your tree.” Clearly they charmed Harper right out of his. And Beguiled by the Wild will charm you right out of yours. This is truly a feast for the family: beautifully delineated and colored art that is sometimes very easy to figure out, other times inventively designed into visual puzzles, along with writing that is lighthearted, funny, informative and engaging all at once. Beguiling indeed.