Mary Warner

DW Gallery

Living in the Southwest, even in urban centers, you occasionally come across longhorn cattle. In my limited experience, they have always seemed to be nonthreatening animals; they are quiet, not particularly active, and have very mournful faces. Looking one in the eye these days can be rather depressing. The cattle drives are long past—even those animals left out on the range are not likely to face much excitement in their lives—and only the folklore lives on.

Mary Warner, a New York painter whose roots lie in Oklahoma, Chicago, Montana, and California, has been making some startling pictures of these most Western of cattle. Her paintings bear witness to memories of Frederic Remington and of Charles Marion Russell, but they forego the nostalgia in favor of a more allegorical portraiture. Looking at Warner’s pictures I gave little thought to cattle per se; their edgy, confrontational demeanor immediately transcends their subjects. In four of the works here (a combination of canvases and works on paper), the animals stand right up at the edge of the foreground; there’s no escaping their looks, which seem alternately angry, sad, or inquisitive. Caught in a moment of stillness yet hardly passive, the beasts give back to you all the attention that you give to the pictures. After a while, I found myself wincing and looking away. Two other cattle paintings show herds of animals. One, called Rush, 1986, shows four glaring cows, with heads down, ready to charge. Another large painting, called Run, 1986, shows a herd rushing across a field during a storm. This is the only picture in which the animals seem concerned with something other than their audience. Evidently it takes a cataclysmic storm to distract Warner’s crew from their audience.

In this context, to see Warner’s portraits of members of her family made all the images seem even more emotionally charged. Her renderings are almost hyperreal; her technique has that kind of careful and beautiful precision that makes the brushwork disappear. As a result, you really focus on the subjects and analyze Warner’s attitudes toward them. What is most striking is the fact that in direct contrast to the cattle, all of the humans’ eyes are averted; either they stare off into the distance, or else you can’t see their faces at all. In two very odd, oversized paintings of a sleeping baby, the child seems distorted and disproportioned, the meaning of which remains indecipherable. Human and animal figures are paired in the two diptychs. The most effective is Faye/Fox, 1985–86, which contrasts a redheaded girl and a fox. I found myself looking beyond the exact match of the color of their hair to the dullness of the girl’s innocent gaze, as compared to the wily knowledgeable eyes of the animal.

Warner’s pictures pack a lot of power. She seems to be at her best when she’s projecting onto a world outside her own. That’s not to say that she can’t paint the figure—she has an Old Master technique that suggests that she can paint anything she wants—it’s just that her paintings actually say something only when she’s confronting real feelings, and in this show it took the transference of animal subjects to make that possible.

Susan Freudenheim