For many people, artists included, horses have represented little more than an object, albeit one of beauty and strength, whether on a field of honor, a Western landscape or racetrack.
From earliest cave paintings to the more refined work of Classical and Renaissance artists including da Vinci and Dürer; from the equine portraiture of Rubens and Velasquez to the more Romantic viewpoint of Delacroix; as well as the anatomical studies of George Stubbs and racing steeds of Degas and Sir Alfred Munnings, horses have been immortalized for their nobility, grace, freedom and productivity.
However, for some the link to horses is more personal, and their expression of it in 2D and 3D form is less than monumental or figurative and borders even on the spiritual. Yet, make no mistake, whether defended as folk, outsider or New Age art, there is a lot of horse manure in the field, and no amount of velvet, glitter or DayGlo can hide its commercialism and lack of fundamental mark making.
Happily, this is not the case with RNG Gallery’s current exhibit, PFERD: Paintings in the Equine Spirit by Nebraska native, Lori Schafer, now living and working in San Francisco. Schafer grew up on a family farm owned by her maternal grandfather, later raising, riding and showing Quarter Horses. As her grandfather’s name was Ferd(Ferdinand), Schafer combined the phonetic connection to the German word for horse, pferd, hence the exhibit’s name.
PFERD: The Equine Spirit is a mostly successful show composed of over 40 works in various sizes, primarily acrylic on paper, a few larger pieces on canvas, and a few more mixed with watercolor. Schafer’s aesthetic is simple and direct. She says in her artist statement that this represents a “homecoming” as she reconnects to those qualities of the Nebraska landscape that she sees embodied within horses such as hard work, strength, truth, stoicism and a powerful silence.
And within herself. There is little doubt in looking at her minimalist, outlined equine figures that she is grounded, not unlike other Western figures, by her identity to a horse. Many cultures relate to these iconic animals via their “life force” that transcends time and space. Schafer understands this when she says that horses “continue to command a vital life in my paintings, perhaps as a way to hold and keep them present when a physical immediacy is no longer feasible.”
Which might explain why her “portraits” lack the customary “physical immediacy” usually seen of horses in art whether in posters, portraiture or illustration. Schafer’s horses are mostly outlined, nearly etched in black or dark hues and then layered in the same texture and palette of her background, thus reinforcing both their spiritual connection to nature and her memory. Though the work is often colorful, the visual effect is often soft and muted not unlike those primitive cave paintings they so closely resemble.
The style then is not Realism—none of these horses sat or stood in the field, barn or studio for the artist though several are remembered as Mac, Belle and Candy Cane. Because her subjects lack detail and definition, often with an animated, distorted torso and elongated head and neck, Schafer’s POV is childlike and the tone is mythic. The Equine Spirit in this exhibit is her “Rosebud,” an attempt to find and re-capture her youth and lost innocence.
And, more often than not, she succeeds. By and large, her horses often feature bowed, peaceful heads as if acknowledging their creator. The mood is mostly tranquil and contemplative. There is no cantering, prancing or rearing up on back legs, a sure sign of familiarity and contentment. Schafer’s herd, this PFERD, occupies a comfort zone that splits its time between the past and the future.
Visually, the exhibit avoids monotony because of the artist’s careful composition and bold use of mostly two colors with at times ominous overtones of black and gray. There are occasional exceptions as with the sandscape yellow of Gee…Roses, the aptly titled Prehistoric Blue and Red Rock, monotones all and noteworthy because of their elegant, minimalist palette.
In the first Gallery space, Schafer’s colorful trio, Cheyenne, Pink Morning and New Grass will get first attention because of their expressionistic style, but two others, Migration and Devotional will linger longer. Each has a more interesting narrative and greater depth. Migration’s story speaks for itself as a herd of wild horses makes its way across the prairie, but it’s the dark, storm-filled brown and gray sky that defines their struggle for freedom and identity. It’s a beautifully rendered work and the strongest in the show.
Conversely, Devotional lacks the latter’s drama, as a pair of horses, presumably a stallion and his mare, share a glance at least of understanding if not outright bliss in this subdued, understated painting. Only the bright blue horizon and sky suggests that there is more to being equine than wild abandon and sewing one’s oats.
Less impressive are a series of singular works, figures 1-10 in Gallery 2 that when compared to those in Gallery 1 resemble studies rather than complete works. Two companion pieces, Paint and Candy Cane are exceptions as they feature two horses facing each other in contrasting styles of red and blue, the former rough and rugged, the latter delicate and minimal. Old Paint and the feminine Candy Cane should always hang together as they likely still do in the artist’s memory.
But, much of the work here and in Gallery 3 lacks the grace and solemnity of the work previously mentioned. In truth, the exhibit at this point needs a strong curatorial edit as with Schafer’s eight Hoof series that add little to the exhibit’s aesthetic, and along with such portraits as The Twins and B Wedding appear rushed to meet a deadline.
Nevertheless, the highlight of Gallery 3 is the blue and brown triptych of Mare, Mother and Child and Stallion. These are virtual signature pieces for the exhibit as they represent the ultimate paradox of being both material and spiritual. Placed in wide open and big sky country without being diminished, the horses seem to haunt their surroundings as they must the artist as she strives to keep their spirit alive.
PFERD: Paintings in the Equine Spirit continues through July 17 at RNG Gallery, 1915 Leavenworth St. For details go to dixiequicks.com and link to RNG Gallery.