Recently I got a friendly message from the painter Ashley Cecil, who was about three quarters through a “DIY” residency in partnership with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and three florists. Working on site, Cecil paints from life, rendering highly realistic birds, flowers and bugs over decorative patterns in rich gem tones. The patterns are bold, in the style of Victorian wallpaper or art nouveau, which were themselves designed after the patterns found in nature (think William Morris). The effect is like an animal painting version of Kehinde Wiley: a charged contrast between the flat pattern and the three-dimensional illusion of the specimens.
Initially, when I heard the term “residency” I assumed the institutions conspired to bring Cecil on site, but she told me that the opposite was true. Like many Pittsburgh artists, Cecil did the entrepreneurial thing and approached them instead. Since they’re more accustomed to hosting scientists, some explaining was needed to bring them on board. Cecil told me, “The tough part was getting ready for it, getting everybody to sign off on the idea that an artist was coming on a schedule to interact with entomologists and ornithologists and asking for specimens, and painting in front of the public.” But once she got started the staff quickly became intrigued by this artist working in their midst. At one point an ornithologist wandered over to offer some constructive criticism: Cecil’s combination of bird and flower would never appear together in real life. Overall the arrangement was perfect for her: it provided the space and time without having to leave her husband and toddler for months at a time.
Cecil works on the patterns in her studio first and then visits at each of the institutions, adding the birds, bees, bugs and flowers as she goes.
I was fascinated to learn that Cecil began as a portrait painter, but was seduced by textiles during her time in London, where she visited the Victoria and Albert Museum regularly. So that explains her interest in decorative pattern design. But why animals? Cecil hails form Kentucky and had developed a specialty painting horses, creating images for Derby campaigns and liquor companies. But she was struck by the decorative qualities that exist in other animals, and how those might relate to our own human efforts (driven mostly by vanity) to distinguish ourselves in a competitive environment. “We like to think we’re a very advance species, but we’re not that far from how the animal kingdom works,” she explained.
Cecil’s art exists at a fraught intersection of different cultural registers. About a century and a half before Arts & Crafts, the academic institutions of western art codified a hierarchy of genres with “history painting” at the top and still life at the bottom. Typically, still life was more accessible to women, who were denied access to formal training, including the practice of nude figure painting, which was essential to the multi-figure compositions. Even animal painting, which was slightly higher on the ladder of art, was still challenging for women. In one famous case, the talented animal painter Rosa Bonheur had to ask permission of the Paris police to put on a pair of men’s pants, which were a practical prerequisite for studying animal musculature in an abattoir. It was tough for the ladies.
Today, it’s still tough for artists of any gender who wants to paint flowers and animals, not only because these subjects are still regarded as unsuitable for ambitious painting, but because figurative painting itself is regarded as (mostly) unambitious. First, abstraction pushed figurative painting to the margins and then painting itself was banished almost completely. Today, conceptualism is not longer dominant, but it remains entrenched. (This explains the appeal of painters like Kehinde Wiley and Kent Monkman, who balance political subject matter and traditional technique.) Although Cecil admires her more conceptual peers she has difficulty connecting with their work. “Pittsburgh is an interesting place in that there are so many up-and-coming fine artists doing abstract or conceptual work, and I’ve found that I can’t get my head around the more conceptual work. I’ve a very literal person and technical proficiency is a huge thing for me. Technical proficiency seems to be lacking in contemporary art.”
Obviously I don’t agree with this (I would argue that technical proficiency has not declined, but rather, has become distributed, and that there are compelling reasons for this shift – a topic for another time), but I welcome the perspective. The more I study contemporary art, the more I am convinced that diversity is a strength. This doesn’t mean I like everything equally; there’s lot of stuff that I don’t like, that I find irrelevant or confusing. But just because I’m not into it personally doesn’t mean I think we should get rid of it. I think competing cultural practices should exist, so we can better understand the communities that value them. Zines, white cubes, museums, artist-run centers, maker spaces, street art, coffee shops, commercial galleries, craft markets, radical book stores – we need them all. We also need strong advocates for these practices and strong critics of them, without which we have little hope of grasping the full richness of our own cultural situation.
So, I was thrilled to when Cecil told me she recently she took up gold leaf application, which she studied with a Parisian master gilder. Yes, Pittsburgh has a Parisian master gilder. In culture, as in nature, diversity is beautiful.