All the pretty horses

Equine fever rages at Marietta museum

Featuring work in various media devoted to that by turns extraordinary and prosaic creature, Celebration of the Horse at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art stretches from a 16th-century Albrecht Durer engraving to the present contributions of the American Academy of Equine Art's stallion enthusiasts. Though the curator's faves appear to be the prominently placed AAEA oil paintings and bronze statues in the museum's antechamber, it is the work that treats the horse more as incidental subject rather than as fetish object that makes the show interesting.

With its prevalent bronze sculptures of spirited, ornery, frisky and contemplative horses, the show's introductory view is not its most enticing one, often suggesting a collection of paperweights putting on airs. Much of the sculptural work in this first room is just an economic bracket or two removed from "World's Greatest Dad" and "I Love You This Much" figurines. Take, for example, Jan Woods' sculpture "Pony Tails," of a little miss wearing the aforementioned hairstyle astride a pony in a vignette that missed its calling as a commemorative plate.

The trailer park imagery of crocheted toilet paper cozies and pissing kiddie yard art has nuthin' on the high-class corn pone of this horsy fare. The work acknowledges the blind, sentimental love of people for their pets in terms sure to alienate those who don't share such devotion.

Pushing the kitsch factor up to stratospheric heights — should love of horse prove too limited a theme — "Stars & Stripes" is a work that manages to combine equine-eros and nationalistic ardor, with its jockeys dressed in red, white and blue jerseys, flanked by a wealth of billowing American flags. If any painting in the show is able to ignite the art-loving spirit in Cobb County, this is the one.

Most of the initial work in Celebration of the Horse depicts what soon becomes a recognizable theme: the Perfect Horse Moment. Often rendered in a Mary Kay spectrum of candied fuchsias and marigolds, the sunlight is dappled, the landscape is in exquisite, voluptuous bloom. And all seems designed to elicit a perfumed sigh over God's perfect creature lovingly framed like a pastry in a Viennese bakery.

But there is an interesting shift as one delves deeper into the equine in successive rooms. The presence of the artist comes more interestingly into play later in the show, in works like James Ward's (1769-1859) lithographs of horses with haunted faces and ghostly white coats — gothic pictures of ravens and full moons and troubled skies. With these older works, it's all about the equine eyes as repositories of thought and feeling while more contemporary artists represented in Celebration seem to fixate more on the animal's athleticism as if they were fullbacks on four legs.

The show is worth a quick perusal not only for curiosity's sake. There are treasures as well, like Leonard H. Reedy's lovely TV Western scenarios of rascally injuns and ambushed wagon trains rendered in the immediately pleasing honeyed tones of vintage paint-by-numbers sets. A duo of Reedy's watercolors are equally beguiling — the kind of animated, romantic, exciting scenes of cowboys and Indians that could illustrate boys' adventure stories (in fact, Reedy worked as an illustrator for Western pulp magazines). Equally redolent of time and place are Henry Stull's (1851-1913) lithe, glossy horses and jockeys, where the satiny sheen of the horses' coat is answered in the rider's silken jersey and an overall atmosphere of visual opulence.

Despite such momentary pleasures, too much of the work in Celebration of the Horse illustrates the danger of being too close to your subject and the difference between rendering something because you love it above all others versus because you are an artist, and a good-looking broodmare has caught your eye.

Celebration of the Horse runs through June 3 at Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, 30 Atlanta St., Marietta. 770-528-1444. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. 1-5 p.m.??

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