T he Yale Center for British Art you know is bright and expansive, filled with landscapes of moody heath and crashing seas, with portraits of Georgian-era women and Elizabethan dignitaries and paintings that bring Greek myths to life.
It’s still all of that, but until March 9th, it’s also a little something more.
The first indication is in the lobby, where a curious sculpture portends something unusual upstairs. That sculpture is Foal, by British artist Nicola Hicks. A horse’s head perched on the torso of a man, the image is reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Nick Bottom, the hapless player whose head turns into a donkey’s. The painted bronze piece creates intriguing dissonance: the transition from horse to man is seamless in shape and line, but the two halves are slightly different colors and the white paint of the horse’s head drips down the beige human body, underscoring the messiness of the biological mismatch.
Twinning is characteristic of the Sculpture by Nicola Hicks exhibition. Many of the works evince one thing but are, in fact, another. In Brave, a bear-shaped hood of plaster and straw envelops a human head. Adjacent to that is Limbic Champion, the bust of a minotaur, half-man and half-bull. Across the gallery, you’ll find Who Was I Kidding, a donkey carrying the skin of a lion, an allusion to the Aesop’s fable in which a donkey pretends to be the king of the jungle but is given away by his bray.
The exhibition has also been literally twinned up: Hicks selected a set of paintings from the YCBA’s collection to accompany her sculptures. At first glance, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century paintings she chose might bear little in common with her works. But as the gallery pamphlet explains, the paintings, all featuring animals in some capacity, were selected “because Hicks recognizes in them qualities for which she herself ‘strives daily,’” those “marked by a deep understanding of individual character.”
In some cases, Hicks selected human portraits to accompany her sculptures as “concentrated studies of character.” For example, Black, a large bear, is juxtaposed with Tilly Kettle’s Shuja-ud-daula, Nawab of Oudh (1772), an oil paint portrait from the Center’s Paul Mellon Collection. In their corner of the gallery, the two seem to be having a quiet conversation about success and uncertainty. Like the bear, the Nawab stands tall, his splendor apparent in his stance and finery, but a sadness in the eyes suggests something complicated on his mind.
The association between Hicks’s new sculpture and antique art is even clearer when you spend some time with the dogs of William Barraud’s A Couple of Foxhounds with a Terrier, the Property of Lord Henry Bentinck (ca. 1845), who exhibit sophisticated, human attitudes through expression and stance. This echoes Hicks’s biggest achievement in these sculptures: their body language. For example, even as the bear of Black stands majestically on its hind legs, the subtle forward hunch of the shoulders and head and the slight tuck of the tail suggest a mournful quality. The artist captures a similar sense of defeat in Who was I Kidding: the donkey’s head slopes down in resignation, as if it can no longer be supported.
Placed as they are among the Center’s collection of landscapes and portraits and smooth, refined busts, Nicola Hicks’s sculptures are a captivating interruption. Because Hicks works primarily in straw and plaster—though some of the pieces on view have been subsequently cast in bronze—her sculptures are intricately textured in a way that makes them feel vital yet oddly brittle. Walking through the exhibit, this viewer practically had to shove her hands in her pockets to keep from touching them in the hope that that momentary contact might bring them to life.
Sculpture by Nicola Hicks
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm through March 9, 2014
1 877 BRIT ART (274 8278)
Written and photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg.