Toward a Clinical Understanding of Abstract Expressionism:

The Paintings of Rene the Elephant in "Dumbo Double Deuce"

May 17 - June 6, 2001
10 Jay Street, 9th floor, Brooklyn, NY
Reviewed by Flash Light

When I read the invitation from The Russian American Cultural Center I recognized two names whose work I thought would be of interest to ASCI members, Ted Victoria, and Meryl Meisler. I wondered why they were in a exhibition with painters such as Larry Rivers, Ross Bleckner, Janet Fish, Althos Zacharias and numerous others.

Victoria and Meisler did not disappoint me. Victoria's variations on the Camera Obscura continue to fascinate. Victoria's largest image braved the bio frontiere. The movement and composition were created by living organisms, brine shrimp swimming within the focal plane of Victoria's projector. Such work challenges the distinction between life and art. Yet Victoria's challenge was not the most difficult.

What I didn't expect was that one painter who was not even named in the invitation would be doing work that riveted my attention, work which posed a profound question to anyone interested in the nexus of art and science. Least of all did I expect that that painter would be an elephant named Rene.

I had read about Komar and Melamid working with elephants. A large forest fire in the East had halted logging operations, and many elephants whose job had been hauling lumber through the jungle, were out of work. According to this story, Komar and Melamid trained unemployed elephants to paint, so the paintings could be sold to tourists.

Komar and Melamid have always challenged the conventions of the art world. When I read about the elephant paintings, I understood the work as fitting in their iconoclastic tradition. I put it in the same category as other stories I've read about animals that paint. But when I encountered Rene the elephant's work in this show, my reaction was visceral. Because I had been engaged in visceral interaction with other abstract painters. I had connected to Rene as a painter. Now that I knew she was an elephant, I needed to understand what that realization meant.

I had been talking to Zacharias earlier. His work in the show was different than the work I had seen on my last visit to his studio. That work set photo-realistic elements in an abstract expressionist field. Zacharias had worked as a studio assistant to DeKooning, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would wrestle with the balance between expressionistic and respresentational elements. But in this show those representational elements had vanished, and in their place were layers of abstraction. Zacharias declared that he had broken free, that these new paintings were much looser, and I had to agree that they were looser.

Then as we walked through the exhibit we came upon Rene's work. Zacharias gave me a few moments to react, then remarked that the painter was an elephant. I could only think, "Amazing, this elepant's work is looser than Zach's!" But how could it not be? The elephant hadn't spent years in art classes where it was required to draw from life, nor had it sat through classes on art history, nor had it the spectre of DeKooning to overcome. If Komar and Melamid are to be believed, they thrust a brush in Rene's trunk, and encouraged it to make marks on a canvas. That elephant made a mark, it reacted to that mark on an animal level, and made another mark, and another, until it learned to paint in the abstract expressionist style. As surely as the abstract expressionists had expressed themselves purely in paint, avoiding representation, so had this elephant.

Zacharias regarded the elephant's paintings as a joke. I was moved by the work. I remembered a story about Picassso: One of his critics said, "My child can paint like that!" To which Picassso allegedly replied, "If only I could paint as well as a child." Most art lovers interpret this to mean Picasso wished to be able to paint with the directness and innocence of a child.

Now it seemed to me the that Abstract Expressionists had gone back one level deeper. They had gotten down to level even before the child's innocence of the artistic traditions. They had grasped the animal's instinct for art. They had achieved a purely visceral response to seeing pigment spread on canvas.

On a clinical level, it now seemed possible to understand the process of Abstract Expressionism as the artist reaching within to discover the deepest animal connection between pigment and expression. How else to explain Rene's paintings? Certainly the animal was influenced by its trainers, but are most human painters any less influenced by teachers, critics, dealers and collectors?

Komar and Melamid's collaboration with Rene seems to me a milestone in understanding the artistic process vis-a-vis the animal origins of the artistic impulse. I had read news articles about art created by animals before, but it took Komar and Melamid to bring such work into a fine art context. Only in the setting of a serious gallery show, where I was trying to identify with the expressions of each artist, could I have connected directly with Rene, and realized that I had connected on a primal animal level with the origins of art.