A feisty paper zoo roars to life at Roby King Gallery

In the menagerie that occupies Susan LeVan’s brain, there are two distinct groups: the “ooh and aah” animals — soaring eagle, bear mama, lone wolf standing on the bluff – and the junk variety — the rats, the squirrels, the ones that no one, except for maybe the Pigeon Lady in “Home Alone 2,” loves. LeVan prefers the latter.

“I try to shy away from what I call the glamour animals,” said the Kingston artist, whose exhibition “A Northwest Bestiary” opened at Roby King Gallery earlier this month.

In her rice paper and newsprint zoo, she does keep a few birds of prey and a trio of cubs, but the real antiheroes are the little guys: a hare, two chipmunks, a Townsend Warbler, among others that tweet and slink and possibly snatch their dinner out of the nearest trash can.

Encounters with wild animals have been a focus of LeVan’s work since the 1980s, when she participated in a month-long residency program in Wyoming. She met another artist there, a very successful New York painter, who would ask the local cowboys to slaughter animals for inspiration.

“I was completely traumatized,” LeVan said. “She’d take the sheet off the corpse and say, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I think that was the spur to me making my art about animals.”

“For me, animals invoke wonder, humor, connection, love — I’m drawn to their parallel worlds.”

LeVan won’t depict any creature she hasn’t met personally, either out in the wild or at a wildlife shelter.

A few years ago, she caught a black bear in her front yard, skimming her suet. She tried to open the door to get a photo, but the bear had vanished like smoke.

Another time, she was living in Indianola. Something had been swiping all the bird feeders, and people kept blaming the raccoons. But one evening, LeVan stumbled upon the real culprit. Jolted, they both scrambled home.

LeVan uses a flurry of color and abstract shapes to capture the energy and evanescence of encounter. Some of her subjects disappear into the canvas, like the furtive coyote, lost in blocks of purple and white, his quick feet and quicker head the only evidence he’s really there.

The newsprint, the meat of several torsos and limbs, appeared underneath LeVan’s kitchen floor, a 1933 edition of the Seattle Times being used for insulation.

Everyone asks the artist about the old words, looking to be enlightened by some deeper meaning. But it doesn’t exist.

“It’s kind of a mean trick on my part,” she said. “I’m not interested in what they say, but the mark-making.”

In a way, the random scraps evoke nature’s mystery.

An anthropologist in training, LeVan has pursued the spirituality and cultural depiction of animals lustily since college.

But this show is different from others, its basis in bestiaries, medieval books that described all breeds of beasts and linked them to moral tales and the lives of the saints. While LeVan wasn’t interested in painting owls that were “wise” or “messengers of death,” she was drawn to the art behind the allegories, which was naive and flat. She also imbued her collages with alchemical symbology, arbitrary circles and upward triangles that represent the sun and fire, a sort of nod to cathedral windows populated by doves and stars and the Virgin Mary.

“A Northwest Bestiary” will be on display at Roby King Gallery, 176 Winslow Way, through Nov. 26. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

For more information, visit www.robykinggallery.com.

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