Meta Gary imagines a new world order in Animal Instinct

The painter performs an anthropomorphic hocus-pocus at Emily Amy Gallery

Meta Gary's Animal Instinct at Emily Amy Gallery offers a peek into the fascinating process of a young artist finding her way; sorting through possibilities, ideas and styles. By turns awkward and divine, Gary's painterly obsession is an anthropomorphic hocus-pocus in which animals act like people and people act like beasts. Dapper roosters wear blue oxfords and dinner jackets, boys in ursine hats imagine themselves as grizzly bears, and upright rabbits in jeans and T-shirts perform mysterious experiments on subjugated bison-slaves. Who's in control here? One minute animals have the keys to the kingdom and the next they're back on all fours: The rules change from picture to picture in the Fantastic Mr. Fox-meets-Where the Wild Things Are illogic of Gary's fanciful imagination. With their wooden backdrops and juicy acrylic color schemes, Gary's paintings can suggest a child's toy blocks intent on goosing imaginations rather than teaching the ABCs.

The work can be exceedingly clever and strange in all the best ways. "With the Softest Steps" is a case in point, a combination of delicate wood burning and graphite on wood featuring a beguiling forest vignette. Gary exploits her material with a wink, using the knotholes and other imperfections of the wood's surface to create a pond from which a deer sips as a boy dressed in a bear-hat creeps up on the doe. The minimalist, slight but heady works achieve a pitch-perfect blend of lo-fi materials and high-concept execution.

Gary creates a world with its own laws and logic but there is a consistent idea of the human encroaching on the wild — and vice versa. Blue jays assault phone booths in "Privacy by Agreement." A wolf skulks through a grey, industrial landscape in "You've Got a Glow About You," one of the building's windows emitting a graphic column of colorful smoke to suggest a human presence.

But ultimately it's nature that hogs the spotlight. In Gary's hands the natural world is a glam, excitement-generating place, far more interesting than anything the humans could offer. Peacocks radiate hot-pink stripes like sun rays and a hawk has a starburst of crimson Kapowing! behind its head. Gary uses graphic symbols to suggest the call of a crow, the howl of a wolf, or to draw attention to some element of the image. In "Defragmenting Three," a wolf framed against a blood-red moon with his head tossed back to emit a wail unleashes a graphic, cubist cloud. It's a supremely sexy, rock 'n' roll image.

If Gary has a downside, it's a tendency toward uneven technique in which her painting abilities trail off: You long for the work to either get more nebulous, paint-by-numbers with fat chunks of unblended color, or more realist, but the work wavers back and forth.

Another common Gary pitfall is packing too much visual froufrou into too tight a space. Less tends to be more in Gary's work. Most often the cleanest, simplest compositions are the most arresting. As long as Gary is working that angle, the wolves are gonna howl.

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