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E-122, 2001
charcoal on paper
© Joseph Piccillo 2001

Joseph Piccillo
June 7 - July 7, 2002
Tues-Sat: 10:30 AM - 5:30 PM

Perimeter Gallery
210 W. Superior St.
Chicago, IL 60610
Telephone: 312-266-9473

On horses such as these even gods and heroes will appear, and men who know how to work well with them will look magnificent.

-- Xenophon, quoted in The White Stallions of Vienna

Those who dream with uncanny accuracy know that the most striking vividness comes not from the fantastic melding of one scene to another but from the astonishing detail, so acute, so supremely real. A firm grounding in believable reality, in everyday structure, is what makes the fantastic stand out when it does appear. Artist Joseph Piccillo plays with such ideas. His subject here is horses: animals with significant dream content already. His style seems at first glance a magnificently accurate photorealism. But there is more to this art than simple pictorial reproduction. In this showing of eight equestrian works (with three other pieces) at Perimeter Gallery, the artist incorporates biomorphic fantasy, subtle anatomical shifts, elements of stylization which cross the line between reality and imagination. These are equine athletes and horses of myth, both at once. They are masterfully depicted in a show well worth seeing.

The works are powerful in their impressive scale, which depicts the equine form in near life-size. To such monumental dimensions Piccillo brings an attentiveness to detail both animate and inanimate: the 'ripped' musculature of a straining chest or the delicate texture of the fleece lining on a pair of tendon boots are rendered with amazing clarity. As a reality, and as a figurative image in art, the horse is an instantly recognizable and appealing icon. (At the opening the gallery's offerings were met more than once with instant cries of "Ooh! Horses!") What takes this work from 'mere' equestrian art to something of more lasting value is the artist's vision, which starts with the rational beauty of a graceful animal, and adds a touch of the irrational. His supremely accurate observation of horse anatomy and mass presents a realistic depiction that satisfies the seeking eye, while on further examination, the dreamlike details emerge.

Several works display horses caught at the dramatic moment of full suspension at the jump, portraying them from equally dramatic angles: head-on towards the viewer, or in perfect profile. In E-115 (charcoal on paper:48"x76":2000), forelegs well tucked, a hunter (a type of horse rather than a breed) is captured in profile. This is a beast of heroic size, its huge head large as a human torso; through such scale, to stand near this work is to have some sense of being next to the living animal. With the hindquarters completely cropped out of the frame, attention focuses on the power in the forehand as the horse drops its head to clear the jump. A subtle departure into imagination begins at the massive throat, where the artist has rendered a network of veins that flows almost ornamentally backward from the direction of the horse's momentum -- a patterning that is indefinably Piccillo's own fancy more than that of nature. The powerful shoulder is just a bit more broad than it should be in the living animal, and at the drawn-up knee, the taut, furrowed detail of the tendons is that of an ecorche (a classical anatomical model, sans skin, showing muscle detail). The calm focused eye and forward-pointing ear bespeak a well-trained animal performing with skill and polish; the details lend a fantasy aspect. Fred Camper, in his June 21, 2002 Chicago Reader review of this show, notes that the artist "sees these works as more metaphorical than literal: what interests him is the horse as a sign of 'gesture, physicality, and movement'", and this horse portrait, with its exploration of anatomical details not usually visible to the viewer, does capture the essence of a moment rather than the actual event.

In his book Effective Horsemanship, Noel Jackson details the rigors of this sport:

What distinguishes advanced show jumping from other forms of jumping competition is, first, that the obstacles are sufficiently large and near enough to the limit of the horse's capacity to impose considerable accuracy in take-off, at least some of the fences.... An additional difficulty is that show jumping takes place in a comparatively confined space, and is often done against the clock. This requires extreme suppleness and handiness in the horse, as well as jumping ability, and emphasizes the need for a high degree of schooling on the flat.

Jackson notes as well the required confidence, the ability to go boldly over fences (even those the horse cannot see over upon approach), the ability to lengthen or shorten stride to adjust for an accurate point of take-off. It is a demanding sport, and Piccillo's show-jumping horses reflect this: they have the physical fitness, the calm competency, and a touch of the aloofness of the professional athlete. #5 (graphite on canvas:5'x4':2002) is the picture of businesslike focus, even enjoyment. He is happy at jumping, relaxed (not all horses are). A sense of buoyant suspension is maintained by the cropping of the erect ears out of the top of frame, and the tightly indrawn legs leaving ample space beneath. There is no decay or dirt in Piccillo's vision: sweat and grime, skin-nicks and kick-marks have been banished. The horse's hide is flawless, the white tendon boots, each bound with a neat, horizontal black band, immaculate as well. As dirt and mud are endemic to real-life horse events, and even Olympic dressage elites become lathered with sweat as they perform, the result is not only superior athleticism, but a supernatural cleanliness, which in itself sets this horse into the dream category.

E-122 (charcoal on paper:73"x48":2001), which appears on the gallery card for the show, recalls the tale in Norse mythology in which Hermod the Blind was permitted to borrow Odin's horse Sleipnir to ride to the underworld, part of the journey of which involved a fantastic leap to clear a chasm. Sleipnir had eight legs, which might make any observer feel a little surreal. E-122 has the requisite four -- but looking closer, one can see the dreamlike impossibility of the position of the left hind hoof (the least visible, behind the other three); and the absolute blackness of the background certainly qualifies as a chasm for this supernatural leaper.

Piccillo's lavish use of black medium in such large works has a certain opulence; there is as well as a richly tactile quality to the thickly applied medium. As a background, the absence of visual reference mutes sound, suppresses time and motion. There are no details by which to orient, to tell whether it is day or night, whether they jump before crowds or alone, over complex jumps or simple ones. This, along with a slight reorientation of image, creates a free fall effect for E-105 (charcoal on paper:39-1/2"x75":1999) (who could be jumping long, but the posture does suggest that the actual jump is toward a higher angle than that portrayed on paper). The ridges of muscle along the belly, the extremes of tendon recorded in the knees, and the machinelike look of the boots recall some of the fantasy work of H.R. Giger in which living tissue is augmented, altered, melded with machinery: something more than nature's organism. This is equally something from myth, a glimpse of Pegasus, wingless here, but just as poised in flight against the velvety black. The details of the dropped noseband, the boots fore and aft, the hogged tail and the full-cheek snaffle bring us from myth to everyday. And yet... the Bellerophon of today might just put tendon boots on his mount, if only to protect his fragile legs during all those takeoffs and landings.

E-105, 1999 (detail)
charcoal on paper
© Joseph Piccillo 1999

#19 (graphite on canvas:60"x56":1999) is a detailed examination of biological form. An alert mare rises in a gawky but eager jump, drawing her hind legs up to clear the obstacle. Her neck, forelimbs, belly, and hindquarters display extremes and patternings of veining that are, again, just that much more than nature provides. These organic patternings contrast with the neatly organized lines of the forelock and mane. Here again, the artist's photorealism leads to an immediate identification of the image, while a gradual exploration of its subtleties reveals more than apparent at first glance. For a mare of her size in the forequarters, the hind legs are larger and more muscular than they should be, and in fact, all her limbs do seem to be, somehow, taken from different horses and assembled visually into a single creature.

One of the pleasures of this show is the accuracy with which the artist depicts horse tack. Though he does take liberties with the non-appearance of buckles, and employs elements of stylization, such details as are usually glossed over here appear as identifiable: bits (a full cheek snaffle, an eggbutt snaffle), bridles (a flash noseband, a figure-eight noseband) and a whole horse-catalogue's-worth of tendon boots, bell boots, and wraps make their appearance. It is more than just happy chance of observation: the tactile qualities of these items, and the lines and polygons they describe, become an integral, visual part of the composition. As an example, the tendon boots in E-122, a realistic accessory for any jumper, here also function as a source of visual contrast with their cushioned fleece and rhythmically spaced black straps.

In the works depicting non-jumping poses the artist's powers of observation and visual analysis of equine form explore the basic anatomical beauty of the horse. Piccillo's superb accuracy is nowhere more apparent than in E-133 (charcoal on paper:75"x48":2001): not only in the gait, left hind limb just touching, right hind and fore firmly planted, right fore raised; but in the depiction of body weight, of the exact fleshiness of mass, the way in which the whole body's weight rises subtly off the left hind leg. This is a real horse, so real that the viewer may not notice for a moment the wholly stylized forelock, which flows like a banner in a long, silken s-curve. E-131 (charcoal on paper:75"x44-1/2":2001) explores of the contrast between the lean spareness of ligaments and the fleshiness of chest, loins and haunch moving with the forces of the gait. These two works also display the personality that horses have when at liberty. E-125 (charcoal on paper:43"x73":2001) captures the fleet instance of balance on a single hind hoof at the gallop. The right hind hoof is cropped out of the frame, giving the impression of a film still, an image selected from a sequence. With such control of the equine form one wishes the artist would illustrate some polo ponies, whose challenging agility and extremes of athletic pose would be well highlighted by his style.

Three pieces in this showing feature the classical athleticism of a human woman, a ballet dancer. Here Piccillo combines the visual language of dance with that of collage: faces and figures, colors, scribbles, and random letters arranged around the focus image of the dancer provide a puzzle whose meaning is for the viewer to decide. In #19 (mixed media on canvas:6'x7':2001) with head thrown back and eyes shut, the dancer stands sur le pointe on her right foot. Tautness shows in the cords of her neck, in the arch of her foot. With her head thrown back, she seeks surrender, abandonment, but the tension on her face shows that abandonment is not forthcoming. In #6 (mixed media on canvas:60"x56":1998), except for the arched right foot, there is relaxation. She appears to be dancing for herself alone, and finding fulfillment. In #1 (mixed media on canvas:6'x5':1999), the dancer is depicted twice on the same canvas juxtaposed with line-drawings of cubes, and small collage additions of trees. There is much visual pleasure in the arrangement of limbs, cubes, trees; in the contrast of softly rounded organic forms and the bare, diagrammatic cubes. Set among the equine works, the dance collages take a place in a larger collage inviting comparison and contrast between the athleticism and grace of both equine and human -- a comparison the artist has invited directly in other works, which place the horse and dancer on the same canvas.

Piccillo's work encompasses the basic visual delight of movement and mass, of the dynamics of motion, of the precise rendering of the animal and its tack, while adding an extra dimension of equine spirit and essence. The artist reveals that there are many varieties of beauty: the biomorphic patterning of veins and tendons, the symmetry of a well-made bridle and bit, the grace and power innate in the horse's anatomy and postures. Whether on a purely visual level, or with all the associations one may find in equine form, Piccillo's work is a pleasure. These horses are everyday beings, and professional athletes, and sleek vehicles of the subconscious. Eleven works (eight horse, three dance) will be on view at Perimeter Gallery from June 7, 2002 to July 7, 2002. Digital reproductions and even print cannot capture the experience of the full size, the fine draftsmanship, the rich black of the backgrounds: the viewer is encouraged to make a special trip to see these works 'in the flesh.'

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are often in print and may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. Noel Jackson's excellent work Effective Horsemanship for Dressage, Three-Day Event, Jumping and Polo was published in 1967 by Arco Publishing, Inc.. Xenophon is quoted in The White Stallions of Vienna by Alois Podhajsky (Dutton:1963), a book on the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Fred Camper's review of this show appeared in the June 21, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader.

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