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Art Review: 'Travis Shilling: Tyrannosaurus Clan,' BCA Center

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"Owl" - COURTESY OF BCA CENTER
  • Courtesy Of Bca Center
  • "Owl"

The disconnect between humans and other living creatures is not a new theme, nor is humanity's headlong destruction of the planet. Along with scientists, philosophers, politicians and writers, artists have long addressed the hubris of people more motivated by profit — or at least convenience — than conscience. Within this realm, we seem to grant unequivocal authority to critiques by indigenous peoples: We once lived in harmony upon this earth. Look how you have screwed it up.

Travis Shilling is a Canadian Ojibwe. His exhibition at the BCA Center in Burlington doesn't point at a specific guilty "you" — after all, complicity in the consumption of modern life is widely shared. However, "Tyrannosaurus Clan" comprises 11 oil-on-canvas paintings that primarily depict workers and their excavation machines clawing channels in the ground to lay pipelines.

In a literal sense, the paintings can be read as a response to the bitter, protracted disputes over pipelines in Canada, particularly between the government and members of the First Nations. Shilling paints the ground and skies in murky hues, as if associating the digging with nefarious intentions and ruinous effects.

"The Excavator #2" - COURTESY OF BCA CENTER
  • Courtesy Of Bca Center
  • "The Excavator #2"

Contrasting with this setting are the symbols of spirit animals that the artist inserts into the scenes, rendering them in a colorful, lively, rather cartoony style. These birds, fish, canines and more appear curious and incredulous, as if wondering, What do you people think you're doing?

Shilling's visual narrations address bundled issues of land use, cultural identity, degradation of the environment and losses of many kinds. Not least, the paintings conjure sympathy for innocent victims: the animals being driven to extinction. Shilling reportedly began to incorporate animals into his work a decade ago after he witnessed a deer trapped by a human-caused flood.

Are these primordial animal spirits, "awakened" by the earth's destruction, making a last-ditch effort to sound the alarm? Or do they embody a deeply sorrowful cry from and for the wilderness? Perhaps both. "Tyrannosaurus Clan" is something of an exegesis on the impact of industry, if not on human evolution itself.

Shilling, the son of Canadian native artist Arthur Shilling, has received acclaim for his evocative paintings of natural and manmade environments. Born in 1978, the younger Shilling has been exhibiting since age 21 and is also a playwright and filmmaker.

"Dusk" - COURTESY OF BCA CENTER
  • Courtesy Of Bca Center
  • "Dusk"

The paintings in his BCA Center show represent a new direction, and a more pointed one. Shilling's intention is evident, but it isn't only their content that makes these works of art compelling. They succeed in part because of the startling juxtaposition of artistic styles: Shilling's contemporary, slightly abstracted realism with its bold, juicy brushstrokes contrasted with his vibrant pictographic symbols. In their simplicity and clarity, the latter seem to sit like judgments — or beacons? — on these dusky landscapes.

Yet the humans in these paintings are oblivious, as if the native symbols were visible only to the viewers. In "The Village," a 48-by-60-inch oil, men with cranes place a large pipeline in a channel. Beside them lurks a huge creature of ambiguous taxonomy: reptilian body, antlered head, clawed feet, a row of spikes down its back. The animal's body is vividly painted with a pair of tepees, a full moon and other symbols. Its visible eye is huge and pink.

Shilling takes on offshore drilling in "West Coast Visitor." Here, the contrast of grim reality and spirit animal could hardly be more pronounced. The angry sea, the towering rig and the monochromatic sky are rendered in a closely chromatic palette of gray, rust and brown. The fish symbol hovering to the right of the rig, as if in a parallel dimension, is yellow, bright green, purple and blue.

In "Under Water," a diver holding a spear floats in a vast sea of indifferent brown. He seems unaware of the whale-size fish spirit following closely behind, its mouth agape to reveal rows of sharp teeth. It is the only creature in Shilling's collection that actually looks menacing.

"Under Water" - COURTESY OF BCA CENTER
  • Courtesy Of Bca Center
  • "Under Water"

The subject of "Owl" is downright cute. But then, owls are always cute — even if we must anthropomorphize this one as sad. Perched atop an excavator, which it eclipses in size, the hapless raptor turns its head 90 degrees to the side. It's a look of confusion, as the owl witnesses the installation of yet another pipeline. The broad sky is an unnatural but beautiful salmon-pink.

The 36-by-36-inch "Partridge Hunter" might be the only painting here in which the human is aware of the spirit animal — and he's trying to kill it. The hunter stands in a wintry field with his back to the viewer, aiming a long rifle at a bird in the sky. The bird, dark gray with turquoise-tipped feathers, lifts both wings like a conductor. Yellow earth-moving machines dot the distant horizon, a team of predators.

"The Shoreline," also 36 inches square, is much more ambiguous in content and amply shows Shilling's painterly technique. A man with indistinguishable features sits gazing at a small campfire, which glows yellow and emits a puff of smoke. He seems unaware of the gigantic woodpecker that warms its backside at the fire while turning its red head away. The bulk of this painting is pitch-black. But the gallery lighting reflects Shilling's long, smooth brushstrokes — tangled layers that turn the nighttime sky into an ebony borealis.

Shilling calls "Travelers" his "seed piece" — the image from which future work evolved. The smallest work here, at 20 by 24 inches, it is a colorful group portrait of four spirit animals, each a hybrid species except for a large orange fish. Their collective expression would have to be described as bewilderment. Many a human earthling can relate. m

The original print version of this article was headlined "Native Speaker | "Travis Shilling: Tyrannosaurus Clan," BCA Center"

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