Leslie Shiels: dizygotic, Cincinnati Art Galleries

By Karen S. Chambers

In October 2010, I reviewed a two-person exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Galleries for aeqai. The opening sentence was “There are twin—fraternal twins—shows at Cincinnati Art Galleries: Leslie Shiels: Lost Dogs Found and Kevin T. Kelly: Embracing the Yin.”

I went on to write, “Shiels provides the hunting hounds, and Kelly the countryside they might roam.” That was my way of connecting two exhibitions that really should have been considered completely separately, but I couldn’t help myself.

When I went to review Shiels’ current show there, “dizygotic,” I had forgotten what I had written. When I re-read that earlier review, I was completely gobsmacked.

I’m not under any illusion that my review had any impact whatsoever on Shiels’ development as a painter, but it was a little weird because “dizygotic” describes fraternal twins, meaning that two embryos grow from two separate fertilized eggs.

In this newest work, done in the last two years, Shiels pairs fraternal twins of animals and fowl in mirror images where one faces right and the other left, rather like ancestral portraits of the lord and lady of the manor gazing at each other.

Two years ago Shiels, a hunter herself, showed packs of hunting dogs at work in recognizable settings and occupying illusionistic space. Now she has moved away from a representation of energetic hounds–not that there aren’t runners, leapers, and amblers here but they seem caught in stop-action. It’s the more exaggerated slapdash quality of the brushwork defining them that imparts energy.

Shiels presents soulful-looking dogs at rest, hares on their haunches alert in a heraldic-like face-off, moths pinned like specimens on display, grumpy-looking turtles making slow progress toward each other, birds caught mid-cry, roosters ready to chase out any barnyard intruder including farmer Brown or his brood, and one scratch-your-head-where-did-this-come-from painting of a Disneyesque Pinocchio lamenting a missed connection with Jiminy Cricket in “Hey Jim Sorry to Miss Your Call.” (Could Jim Dine’s “Pinocchio” in front of the Cincinnati Art Museum set her off in this direction?)

With this exception, Shiels has stuck to the animal kingdom. (It might be noted that this is a subject she shares with friend and former Cincinnati painter Michael Scott.) Animals are always crowd pleasers, but the painter has used them as vehicles for explorations of form and color. Pushing farther into abstract territory, her backgrounds no longer suggest space although she still includes rather blobby shadows. Instead they have become flat fields of decorative patterns in brilliant colors that contrast with those of her mostly drab animals. The showy fowl are the exception.

Here the roosters really rule the roost–pardon the pun. These imperious creatures aren’t the white Leghorns we’re all familiar with, whether that acquaintance comes from Foghorn Leghorn or the coop. Instead they are “fancies,” a proper category. (The nomenclature derives from their ornamental features such as unusual colors, crests, feathered feet, beards, muffs, etc.) I first encountered them at the Texas state fair and was astonished by the diversity and their often outrageously colored plumage, which can verge on the exotic. Parrots move over.

I’m not a chicken connoisseur (except I can recommend Kroger’s Colossal Rotisserie Chicken), but a little research suggested that Shiels’ birds with their peacock blue, aqua, gold, and pine-green plumage might be Belgian bearded bantams de Watermael.

To my eye, two of Shiels’ most successful paintings are “Houdini Left” and “Right,” two of those flamboyant yet noble birds standing in profile. I particularly liked the latter with its background of spiraling wormlike golden curlicues that are echoed in the curve of his feathers, especially the tail feathers, each defined by a single fluid brushstroke. The artmarks stand out against a ground of turquoise hash marks over a cockscomb red ground. The painting reminds me of Matisse in boldness of color, particularly “The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room).” Reaching further back, the very richness of her color recalls Venetian Renaissance painters such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Moving forward she has an affinity with P & D artists of the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Robert Kushner, Kim McConnel, Miriam Schapiro, and Betty Woodman.

For me the least successful painting is “Hey Jim Sorry to Miss Your Call.” Here the marionette is plopped on a vibrantly colored and dizzying ground of undulating stripes and against a wall of roiling amoeba-like shapes. The energy Shiels had conveyed through her slapdash brushwork is completely MIA here. She has given us an illustration of the cartoony Pinocchio, who starred in the 1940 film, and his familiar tale.

I hope that this is where Shiels is headed. There must be a lot more roosters out there looking for their 15 minutes of fame.

Leslie Shiels: dizygotic, Cincinnati Art Galleries, 225 E. Sixth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-381-2128, www.cincyart.com. Through Nov. 24, 2012. Mon-Fri., 9 a. m.-4 p. m., Sat., 10 a. m.-3 p. m.


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