One could make the grand statement that the whole thing began with animals ... this very old business of mark-making on behalf of storytelling. There they are on Page 1 of everyone's comprehensive art history tome: the prima materia, or first matter, of art and ourselves, the animal.
Polly Bullard gives us the opportunity to consider a few of the animals that are close to her in an exhibition at Main Art Gallery. Her captivating exhibition of these animal drawings and monotypes is, ostensibly, a time-travelogue with references and points of interest highlighted along the way. Lascaux may be the first site on the itinerary, but following it in the brochure are many spectacles of animal representation on behalf of allegory. Interdependence, as in the Paleolithic cave paintings, shows itself in Bullard's "Brahma Cow and Calf"; autonomy, an enviable attribute given to animals by many artists from Albrecht Durer to Erté to Deborah Butterfield, is depicted particularly in Bullard's cat studies (with the greatest nod to Erté's airy style). Intermediary spirits, such as Marc Chagall or Remedios Varo might describe surrealistically, show up softly and impressionistically in "Connected," while caricature or satire of the sort that J.J. Grandville or Edward Lear were so fond of can be discerned in Bullard's "Hamma-Namma" and "At the Oasis." And finally, Utopia or the peaceable kingdom is solicited in "Flock Tender."
But all of those art historical resonances and blood relatives are not necessarily what Bullard is trying to accomplish with her monoprints. She is simply trying to know and to make known the innocent heart and the clear intelligence of animals. She gives them a sense of humor and compassion, not so much to anthropomorphize them, as to suggest that those qualities are among their natural possessions, as well as they are among ours. Perhaps more so. She wishes to express their influence in her life and her affinity for them. This she does tenderly and with great expressive result.
Bullard's illustrative style feels, as Main Art's Gallery Coordinator Melanie Christian observes, slightly French. It does somewhat remind one of French turn-of-the-century graphic artists such as Erté, Mary Cassat or Toulouse-Lautrec. But Bullard's work is not period reproduction by any means. With slight vintage blush, it is nonetheless individualistic, contemporary and applicable to our present particulars.
When the subject is puppies, as it often is in Bullard's work (if it's not cats or llamas), the response is pretty secured. But while it's not so easy to do, Bullard lets us think of puppies without getting singsongy and sentimental. Spared of any embarrassment, who can resist that simple form of happiness?