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A menagerie on canvas

Review of 'Creature Redactions' by Peter Reitsma.

In his short essay “The Truth of Space,” the British critic and philosopher John Ruskin asked his readers to perform a minor experiment. He asked them to draw two dark shapes on a piece of paper. The further back you go, he explained, the more indistinguishable the shapes become from one another, but you still see something; the closer you go, however, the more distinct the lines of one shape become while you lose sight of one shape entirely. Ruskin’s point: “Nature is never distinct and never vacant, she is always mysterious but always abundant, you always see something, but you never see all.”

As I walked through the small town Milton gallery that housed Peter Reitsma’s latest art collection “Creature Redactions,” I couldn’t help but think of Ruskin’s essay. The paintings in this collection help us attend to the animal kingdom around us, one that we’re silencing and erasing as the human footprint of the Anthropocene age grows ever larger and all encompassing. To step off the street and into the gallery felt like walking into an ark of sorts. Each painting is a window from which we look out upon a redacted piece of the animal kingdom. Yet one also has the sneaking, unsettling suspicion that the animals are actually looking from the outside into the gallery, at us in our isolation, in the ark we have made only for humans.

The stunning menagerie of paintings in this collection are helping us to perceive what is often kept from our view. There are voices we have drowned out with the blare of our engines and the hum of our transport corridors. The reason Ruskin adored art – specifically that of the painter – is because artists trains us in the craft of perceiving a reality that is at once hidden and manifest, abundantly mysterious yet often casually dismissed. The painter trains us in attending to reality, encouraging us to keep attending until what is hidden starts to come into focus.

That these paintings were mostly produced in the past two years of covid-19 closures is a remarkable testimony not only to Reitsma’s discipline, but to his careful and loving attention to the non-human animal world. And while some might not think that the artist can effect real change to stop the ineluctable forces of our hyper-capitalist, late-modern age and its seemingly hellbent desire to destroy the very fabric of the world on which we depend, what these paintings demand of us is precisely the antidote: loving attention. Reitsma’s paintings ask from us the same kind of careful focus that went into their creating, both as creatures and as representations on a canvas. At his best, Reitsma wonderfully renders the haunting luminosity of a Humpback’s iris, the weathered sagacity of an elephant whose body has been reduced to the price of ivory, the playful and impossible arch of a giraffe looking to grasp the last leaf, the play of water as it laps around a wolf swimming to safety.

In our fast-paced, utilitarian society, even taking time to slow down and step into an art gallery can be a profoundly counter-cultural act. But not the kind of counter-culture that is iconoclastic. In fact, Reitsma’s work is precisely the opposite. The animals on display are icons of the true. What Reitsma asks is that we look upon these creatures of our shared world – the creatures God made and still calls “Good!” – and wonder anew at them.

Author

  • Doug is the Assistant Professor of Core Studies and English at Redeemer University.

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