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The animal nature

Joan Jonas' drawings reinterpret animals appearing at Gardner Museum

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
The animal nature
Drawing by Joan Jonas PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Animals have always fascinated humans. Like us, they hunt, eat, mate, procreate, gather and travel solo. And yet they remain an enigma, provoking curiosity as well as wonder. Actual and fantastical creatures populate works by legions of artists, from ice age cave art to Aesop’s fables, medieval bestiaries to home décor and religious imagery.

Drawing by Joan Jonas PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Drawing by Joan Jonas PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Renowned conceptual artist Joan Jonas has an abiding interest in animals, both as images and as fellow creatures imperiled by environmental degradation. In her multimedia performances and visual art, Jonas, 83, calls attention to the fragility and beauty of nature and its inhabitants.

On view through Oct. 20 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is her beguiling installation, “I Know Why They Left.” The exhibit features 55 ink drawings inspired by the abundance of animal figures depicted in the art and furnishings of the museum, a Venetian palazzo that Isabella Stewart Gardner constructed at the turn of the century and filled with favorite objects spanning more than a millennium.

Renderings of mythical, archetypal and natural animals are ubiquitous in the museum, in tapestries, furniture, paintings, decorative objects, and even at the base of pillars, which are supported by stoic lions.

A collector of animal figures since childhood, Jonas became captivated by the museum’s figures. She photographed many of them during her one-month residency in 2017 at the Gardner, one of few museums in the world that host artists as live-in guests. An exhibit celebrating this residency program opens on Oct. 17. Entitled “In the Company of Artists: 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence,” the show features seven female artists who, like Jonas, inhabited the museum and created works in response to its holdings.

Drawing by Joan Jonas PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Drawing by Joan Jonas PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Working from her photographs, Jonas created the drawings using bamboo pens and red, green or blue ink on sheets of paper that are either 8¼-by-8¼ or 11¾-by-8¼ inches in size. This uniformity results in 55 individual works that form an ensemble.

Occupying the museum’s intimate Fenway Gallery, the drawings are grouped by the source materials of the original images: embroidery, lace, tapestry; marble, stone; ceramic, metal, porcelain, wood. Accompanying the exhibit is an enchanting book that reproduces each drawing and includes an interview with Jonas by Pieranna Cavalchini, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, who also conducts the artist-in-residence program.

In September, Cavalchini hosted a conversation and book-signing with Jonas, who lives and works in New York and Nova Scotia and seldom exhibits or performs in Boston.

Currently the subject of a major touring retrospective organized by the Tate Modern, London, and representative of the U.S. at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Jonas is professor emeritus at the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology and one of three individuals honored with the 2018 Kyoto Prize. In November 2014, she and jazz pianist Jason Moran performed “Reanimation,” her multimedia work conjuring an endangered Arctic, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

During her conversation with Cavalchini, Jonas describes her drawings as twice-removed from the original works because they were based on her photographs, which “flattened” the figures adorning the museum’s furniture, sculptures, paintings and textiles.

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“My drawings then became interpretations of both the artist’s work and my photograph,” Jonas writes in the book accompanying the exhibit. “In a sense, my drawing is a third transformation. While I always try to show the essence of the animal, I am often surprised by the result, the spirit of the animal takes over.”

Indeed, the figures in her drawings have character. Depicted in cartoon-like contour, her animals are distilled to their essence, with a touch of humor, respect and whimsy. They are seldom still. Some interact. One rabbit mounts another. Pairs peck or eye each other. A whale wriggles and lions are personable, each with an expressive face. But no saccharine touches seep in. Also on view are tiny ceramic figures of animals from the artist’s collection.

In Jonas’ drawings, the animals inhabiting the Gardner escape their settings and take on a life of their own. Her attention elevates these creatures from their supporting roles in the ornate furnishings and art. Her renderings also serve her larger interest in the survival of their living counterparts.

“I want to show how beautiful these creatures are,” says Jonas, “and what we’re losing.”

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