Looking at Wendy Jane Bantam’s fanciful, surrealistic oil paintings of animals in carnival and theatre scenes, you want them to move, to show you what happens next, but, said Bantam, the story is all up to the viewer.

Many of the pieces in A Night at the Orpheum: The Queen’s Cabaret, the current exhibit at Modern Arts Midtown until Mar. 31, could be book-cover illustrations for fairy tales, sometimes dark fairy tales.

The bright hues she uses are reminiscent of vintage Vanity Fair covers; royal blues, purples, pinks and yellows in large areas play together on the canvas creating rich atmospheres for the juxtaposed performing animals. These animals, on the contrary, though delightfully painted, seem to be in compromising positions, reminiscent of her inspirations, the dark illustrators Edward Gorey and Sue Coe.

In one of the artist’s professed favorites, “Porcupine’s Heart,” is a large pale blue porcupine on a unicycle balancing a bar with pigs on either end in an abstract scene of mountains and trains with bright yellow sky and pink and blue smoke swirling around. It’s happy, as the color yellow is, and it’s fun, as the cute pigs look around in wonderment. Upon closer inspection, the literal heart of the porcupine (the heart shows up in many of Bantam’s scenes) is surrounded by barb-wire, its exterior spikes guarding it as well. 

“It’s a sweet creature putting on an endearing show,” Bantam said, “but how do you get to the heart of it?”

Bantam, herself a “sweet creature,” returned last fall from a six-month venture through Europe where she performed her guitar and sang, and attended live shows constantly, but did not let a paintbrush touch the canvas.

She has an astounding background exhibiting worldwide in museums and galleries, working as an Americorps Vista volunteer and coordinating public art projects nationwide in communities of need. The Hay Springs, Nebraska native waited for her arrival back to her home studio in Lincoln to paint all of what she took in during her travels through small villages in Turkey and England, this exhibit being the result.

Other paintings like “Where the Turtle Lives,” a tiny blue and purple row of tents, draw on the line of the abstract and representational. A set of four small paintings in the back gallery also showed her complementary love of pure landscape along with fanciful culture.

Fanciful culture, though perhaps the name of her game is sometimes eerie as well. Like in “Jester Receives Lilies” with a jester sitting, flowers for his head and its real head sitting next to it on the chair. A black cat sits on the floor, seeming to know something we don’t.

A cat, like the heart, plays a seemingly knowing role in many of the pieces, as in “Bigfoot and Dodo Birds,” showing twister-wrapped dodo birds getting swirled in the storm although they appear quite content. A black cat in the bottom right, again, appears to remind us of reality to come.

In fact, the large paintings that line the back gallery all seem to have a dark quality—a volcano in one with a world that seems topless as Escher, reels us in with no end. In another, a multi-colored extravagant bird sits on stage ready to perform—with a blindfold over its eyes.

With the darkness, a sweetness and sense of humor are ever-present still, as in “Elephant’s Puppet Show” and “Sir, There’s a Peacock on the Roof,” two paintings that grace window-shoppers of the gallery up front.

Both large paintings use hearts, and swirls that bring you over the canvas, and fun circus-type poses of animals; the elephant trying to balance, the peacock showing off on the rooftop, heart shapes abound.

It is interesting to note Bantam’s process amongst the resulting spacious gallery show. For Bantam paints them all at once; she lines up the canvases along the walls of her small home studio space. She paints them layer by layer, each a different story, though each a part of the whole story. (valorhealthcare.com)   When Bantam saw the result which gallery co-owner Larry Roots hung, she herself was in awe of how it came together, how each looked next to each other and on its own.

Stepping back from the intimate stories, one can see Bantam is a painter’s painter—her compositions are balanced flawlessly, her use of color innate. Even without the narrative details they provide quite pleasing emotive points of view.

Still, the stories are what captivates and separates Bantam from the viewer—albeit somewhat frustratingly at first, yearning for answers from the artist as to the end and meaning of each story, one comes to conclude it is the beauty, too, in the unknowing and bizarre tales of life, bright and dark, funny and compelling.

Wendy Jane Bantam: A Night at the Orpheum: The Queen’s Cabaret, is on view through March 31 at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge St. For more information visit modernartsmidwest.com.

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