A white-faced capuchin monkey bites its middle finger to mask its anxiety or astonishment. The confused expression directed at us is reminiscent of a creature arrested from its natural habitat, the rain forest.This monkey is, after all, levitating on a red wall.
Purple Monkey on Red (2016) is one of 19 hyper-realistic, color-soaked paintings of animals turning Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens into a real-life Jumanji with zebras, leopards, rabbits, and even a strikingly detailed grasshopper. This vibrant safari precipitated by Austrian artist Helmut Koller portrays the predators and docile creatures in stunningly saturated canvasses.
Cheetah in Cobalt Teal washes the entire subject in the same teal hue, leaving the dark spots and tear-like facial streaks to delineate the agile, lean body of this big cat. As our purple monkey, it looks at us without losing composure. We can tell it’s not amused. Its glossy eyeballs are calmly sizing us up like a veteran judge accustomed to making decisions after a short evaluation.
The three-quarter profile of a handsome lion, also in teal and hanging between two large windows, is among the most amusing pieces on display. The amplified head and respectable mane occupy most of the surface; its mustard eyes elude us. Lion Head in Teal is the kind of picture designed to convey wisdom and advance a sound reputation. The lion’s distinguished pose and serious expression exude prestige and underscores its regal status, much like the fancy sitters of Francisco Goya or Rembrandt van Rijn.
Koller’s sitters seem complacent for the most part or unaware of their new framed captivity. There’s no sign of a strong rejection or rebellion building up, although a quiet fury does seem to be fomenting inside a purple grizzly bear strolling a green background. The eyes, fixated away from us but surely on an unlucky target, are the most telling sign the corpulent beast in Bear in Purple is getting ready to strike.
The paintings are cheerful, bold, and straightforward. Just don’t call them Pop Art.
That would have been the easiest description, Koller admits in the preface of a catalogue resting on a credenza. The playfulness of his works is deceiving and makes light of an artist heavily invested in defining his brand. Dissatisfied with the Pop Art and New Pop qualifiers, the Palm Beach-based artist eventually landed on Kollerism.
“The Pop Art of the sixties saw itself as a counterculture, but I am of a different generation and cultural background,” reads his statement. “I feel closer to the Wiener Sezession and the artists of the Renaissance.” (The Vienna Secession dates to 1897 and is closely associated with Art Nouveau. Its members, among them Gustav Klimt, were committed to the ideal of modernizing Austrian art.)
This explains why Koller’s canvasses are built upon the classical color harmony and follow the golden ratio – a mathematical principle Renaissance artists employed to balance and harmonize their compositions. Koller grew up in the picturesque Austrian countryside. After completing his training as a photographer, he became the official photographer for the Vienna State Opera, capturing legends such as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Leonard Bernstein and Rudolf Nureyev.
On view through March 27, The Animal Paintings of Helmut Koller imagines a jungle of crisp hairy and feathery creatures against flat, monochromatic backgrounds that propels them forward. We get the sense we could easily peel them off the surface, like fun, momentary tattoos give up human skin.
Flicking off would have been the most appropriate response to the acrylic grasshopper found in the back gallery, except this one is gigantic and in repose. Koller captures the leaping insect’s organs and legs with exquisite detail like a mechanic in awe of a brilliant machine. Its body is a field of brilliant dark and light greens, with a touch of yellow for the wings and red accentuating its bulging eyes like headlights. Grasshopper on Purple is generously intricate and offers the broadest color range in The Animal Paintings.
Also included in the show, and not to be missed, is a short video animation titled Leopards and created for a future NFT (non-fungible token). It’s composed of all the animal paintings Koller produced in the past 20 years and injects the movement denied to the rest of his colorful sitters.
The Animal Paintings of Helmut Koller runs through March 27. Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: Members free, adults, $15; seniors, $10; children/student, $7. 253 Barcelona Road, West Palm Beach. 561-832-5328 or visit ansg.org.