About animal iconography
Iconography has been a part of my art for as long as I can remember. This is probably the case because the earliest images I can remember clearly are Orthodox Christian icons. My parents didn’t have any original artwork in their little two-room apartment in Kiev, Ukraine, but they did have a pair of antique icons. I have never asked about it, but I believe the set of icons they had is the “Wedding Pair” traditionally given to the bride and groom at Orthodox weddings. In any case, the strong image of Christ’s face surrounded by a halo etched itself in my memory.
Later on, when I began to paint, I often surrounded my characters with a halo. In particular, I liked the concept of the woman as divine, depicting a sort of universal divinity that is almost implicitly there in every woman, whether she realizes it or not. I also painted the artist, a reference to myself, with a halo around his head. In this case, the halo represented divine inspiration as given to the artist while he is creating.
Animals came into my art after I moved to Mexico. Suddenly, I was in the world where animals were not tied to their owners 24 hours a day. There were stray dogs wandering the streets, and even those dogs who had owners often wondered the streets, only returning home when they felt like it. There were also stray cats, who jumped from roof to roof, entering kitchens or fishing out their supper from decorative indoor fountains with goldfish in them. These things made too big of an impact on me to let them go unnoticed. Dogs and cats began to creep into my art.
The first animal I painted was the archetypal lost Mexican dog. It was a short haired mutt with a smile on her face a the tear in her eye. It represented the mixed feelings of being lost – the freedom and novelty of it, as well as the sadness of not having a home. The cats that sat around having dinner came later. These were largely influenced by my friend Toller Cranston’s breakfasts, lunches, and dinner parties. I wanted to paint those events, but I did not want to use the faces of actual people, since those changed all of the time. I was able to paint the archetypal dinner party using cats instead of people. Thinking about it now, the scene does have some resemblance to Andrei Rublev’s famous painting of the Holy Trinity as angels being welcomed by Abraham. Chagall later to take on the subject as well, when a large canvas that is a part of his Biblical series, on display in Nice France.
However, my animal icons are not sarcastically religious or anti-religious. I have the highest regard for Orthodox iconography and would consider it hugely inappropriate to poke fun at it through my art. My animal portraits do not present animals is divine, for that would be absurd. Rather, I try to present the animal in its archetypal essence. I’m not interested in wild animals, who have no relationship with humans. I’m interested primarily in dogs and cats, our closest animal friends. To me, the archetypal dog is one that is happy in virtually any situation. It is happy to chew on a simple bone, or to howl at the moon at midnight. Dogs have simple pleasures. My cats, on the other hand, are archetypes of royalty. They could be very far from purebred, yet they believe themselves to be of royal blood and act accordingly.
Therefore, while traditional Orthodox Icons are objects of prayer and gateways into higher spiritual realms, my animal icons are gateways into the guileless and childlike mind of the archetypal dog and the archetypal cat. My only object in painting them is to bring the viewer into that childlike world of simplicity. It is not a religious experience. My animal icons do not elevate the viewer above the informational clutter of this world, nor do they submerge the viewer into the demonic world below. They just gently take the viewer aside to a forgotten corner usually visited only by children, where one has to kneel down in order to enter, but to kneel down not to worship, but simply in order to fit through the doorway.