Levin: Charlie Harper’s Art

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(Host) Recently, naturalist and commentator Ted Levin took in an exhibit
of the works of world-class wildlife artist Charley Harper
– now on
display at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. And he says it’s
wildlife art at it’s most entertaining.

For more than forty years, I‘ve enjoyed the playful art of the late
Charley Harper, first in the pages of Audubon magazine and later in an
instructive mural in Everglades National Park and then in posters for
the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Nature Center, and several other
national parks. Harper’s work is original and patently recognizable:
richly colored and two-dimensional, his stylized wildlife is portrayed
as geometric reductions, all circles, squares, triangles, lines. Minimal
realism is what Harper calls it.

"I’m probably the only wildlife artist in America," Harper once wrote, "who has never been compared to Audubon."
the next few weeks, The Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, is
hosting a retrospective of Harper’s work, a collection of limited
edition silk-screen prints, and a companion exhibit by students from the
Center For Cartoon Studies, in White River Junction, who were inspired
by Harper’s iconic art.

Harper took pride himself in capturing
the essence of his subject with the fewest possible elements. He once
claimed, "When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t count the
feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes,
color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless
possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as
an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent,
perfectly balanced, without trimming… parts; and herein lies the
lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small
rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe." He didn’t
try to put everything in a painting. He tried to leave everything out.

beaver dining on a collection of white birch limbs, for instance, is
distilled into a series of three progressively larger circles – face,
head, body – all overlapping and an oblong tail. A family of barn owls
is a gathering of heart-shaped faces.

Not only are the prints
whimsical, but also Harper’s accompanying text is laced with puns and
alliteration and is often LOL funny. Take the print titled
"Flamingo-a-go-go." Two pink necks, heads touching, form a frame-filling
heart, around which the rest of the flock busy themselves with flamingo
activities. A portion of Harper’s caption reads:

"A flock of
flirting flamingos is pure passionate pink pandemonium, a frantic
flamingle-mangle, a discordant discotheque of delicious dancing,
flamboyant feathers, and flamingo lingo."

Another favorite of
mine is the image of the great horned owl carrying a striped skunk
against a star-lit sky. The black of the skunk and the black of the
night merge together seamlessly; and the skunk’s bright yellow eyes and
the bright yellow stars are indistinguishable except for the position of
the eyes in the camouflaged head. Wrote Harper: "…it’s stink, stank,
stunk when you confiscate a skunk."

And then, there’s the caption
for the ruby-throated hummingbird, which Charley Harper calls the
"…fiercest, fastest, feistiest flyer in the firmament."

Not Audubon, perhaps, but pure Harper.

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