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Animal Dreams 

A black panther, eyes glowing red in the night, fends off a flock of hummingbirds. On a lily-lined brick stoop, chipmunks perform ballet-like acrobatics in the moonlight. Under the stars, a boy in pajamas approaches a tree sprouting balloons, some containing butterflies. He carries a bow and arrows; the balloons glow in the dark. The images are realistically rendered yet fantastical. They were painted by Thomas Woodruff, an artist so fond of tattoos that his body is covered with them.

What do tattoos have to do with contemporary art? Not much, ordinarily, but Woodruff regards them as popularly accessible symbols that can function as a shared visual language. "I am, above all, a populist," he has said, and his Oestreicher show evokes some of the mystery of tattoos combined with the whimsy of children's book illustrations. He is in fact the chairman of the Illustration and Cartooning Department of New York's School of Visual Arts, although his illustrations are usually for Latin American novels, not kids' books. Whimsical as they are, his images may be too peculiar for children, even if kids sometimes turn up among his subjects.

The painting of the pajama-clad boy with the bow and arrow and the balloon-sprouting tree is called Suddenly. Surrounded by fluttering butterflies, the balloons glow as the kid approaches them quizzically. The word Suddenly appears just above him in old-fashioned circus wagon print. This and two similar canvasses, And Then and Meanwhile, were commissioned as posters for the New York subway system. Charmingly enigmatic at first, they were designed to illustrate the creative process. How does creativity work? The first gestures are often like shots -- or arrows -- in the dark, but if a problem is approached with a childlike openness, associations are made and eventually light bulbs go off. Here the associations are butterflies, and the light bulbs are balloons, but it's the same general idea. The other two in the series reflect related aspects of the same process.

The rest of the images are of animals and were created as independent works, not as illustrations. All are set at night, the most mysterious of times, and all deal with nature in an outdoor if not wild setting. While technically realistic, traditionalists may find them unsettling. For one thing, Woodruff's flair for symmetry makes for some weird compositions. Acrobatic Skunks portrays a couple of skunks doing headstands, front paws balanced on a pair of purple coneflowers. Their tails form heart-shaped curves flanking a dandelion puff ball, and of course this could never really happen. Adding to the scene's general loopiness, the skunks are wearing Tyrolian green felt hats with little feathers in them, and it might almost be a scene from The Wind in the Willows if the symmetry didn't give it such a spooky, tattoo-like aura. No matter how cute, tattoos were always symbols of outsider status, originally favored by convicts, seamen and bikers before being co-opted by bored goth kids in recent years.

Another exercise in weird symmetries is seen in Owl Head Stand. Here an owl clutching mice appears upside down, its head balanced on the head of an upright owl. Are they doing head stands or are they Siamese twins? With Woodruff, you never know. Like tattoos, his images exist for their own sake. A New Yorker born in New Rochelle, at the edge of the city, his view of nature was limited, but all that changed in recent years after buying a house in a rural area upstate. Nocturnal by instinct, he did his nature walks at night and was fascinated by what he found.

Philosophers have long speculated that the dreaming mind, the subconscious or psyche, was a function of nature, whereas reason and logic were more scientific products of civilization's orderly evolution. In these wonderfully well-drawn and painted works, nature and the psyche really do come together in a way that is accessible yet mysterious, sentimental yet edgy. Beyond Disney and Wild Kingdom, there is something about them that is distinctly gothic, as subversive as a risque tattoo on a Girl Scout selling cookies. And it is that zone of contrasts and commonalities that Woodruff mines for his images, products of a dusky twilight realm where nature dreams, and where dreams devise a natural order of their own.

click to enlarge Thomas Woodruff's Owl Head Stand, from his Nocturnal Missions show at Marguerite Oestreicher, is an exercise in weird symmetries as Woodruff continues his nature walk at night.
  • Thomas Woodruff's Owl Head Stand, from his Nocturnal Missions show at Marguerite Oestreicher, is an exercise in weird symmetries as Woodruff continues his nature walk at night.
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