Several weeks ago, I placed a work of art on The Unintended Curator gallery walls that can be best described as enigmatic. I describe this as a single work, though it is comprised of many parts, all etchings. It involves fairies, far-flung places, magic, and cats; all brought to life in the form of an unplayable suit of cards. As individual etchings, each piece stands alone, but as a complete set, they beg to be read as story. The artist, Alan Larkin, has titled each of the thirteen etchings, and though this helps, the connection between the individual etchings need to evolve in the viewer’s experience. It is a puzzle to be pondered.
Communication is one of the functions of art. Truly, it is the basic reason art is made. Even visual artists talk about finding their voice in the work they feel compelled to do. What we, as viewers, bring to this communication is nothing short of our total selves. The artist, on the other hand, provides a moment in time. With Larkin’s suit of etchings, we have thirteen individual moments and another to consider the whole. Artists have done this for centuries, at times presenting multiple views in a single work, at others through a diptych, polyptych, or series. The viewer’s commitment to this communication can be as brief as the average 28 seconds people spend viewing a work of art in a gallery, or as long as the hours involved in reading a 300-page novel. It is our choice. In so doing, however, we perform an act of listening that allows the artist to enter our world, and, if we are attentive to the work, we can dialogue with the artist through our questioning.
I believe the ancients knew this, even in the caves of Altamira or Lascaux. I believe they knew that engaging with images, sounds, and thoughts needs to be savored and ripened with the seasons; that if we are to listen to the voices of contemporary art, or those one hundred, five hundred or a thousand years ago, we must give them a considered listening. Though the work does not change over time, we do, and the diligent listener will be rewarded in periodically revisiting works of art that speak to them. Therefore, I have come, once more, to sit in the gallery and consider Larkin’s work.
Taken as a whole, the thirteen images bond together nicely. In hanging the work, I chose to allow the first card to stand alone with two rows of six completing the suit. In this way the cards can be read from left to right, down and up. Beginning with Free at Last, a joyously jumping kitty playfully juggling two mice, the cats grow in number and the compositions become more complex. They conclude after number ten, The Fall of Man, with the Jack, Queen, and King, respectively titled Oisin, Titania and Oberon, the Irish god of youth and the fairy queen and king from Midsummer Night’s Dream. In each of these royal cards a singular cat is hidden within the composition. Throughout the suit, the occasional cat will look directly at the viewer, but with the royals, only Oberon makes eye contact, his knowing glance both friendly and unnerving.
Each composition has its own setting. The first ten images occur in locations as various as a seashore, a field, and a city. Six of these, Free at Last (1), War (2), The Guardians (3), Leap of Faith (4), The Citadel (6), and The Tempest (9) have the cats air-born, jumping or flying within their environments. The other four, Acqua Alta (5), Attack at Dawn (7), His Master’s Voice (8), and The Fall of Man (10) are decidedly earth-bound. Though varied in place and perspective, each setting seems familiar rather than generic. It is as if the artist wants us to know this place as it interplays with the number of cats. The titles provide some accessibility, though also add to the mystery. The royals, on the other hand, are titled by name and inhabit opulent interiors germane to their standing.
Of the settings found in the first ten cards, one location may be referenced in the title, The Citadel. Here we see a cannon positioned in the crenel of an embattlement and aimed toward a distant town. High in the clouds, six cats, curled like cannon balls, float in three rows of two. Though the title may simply refer to a castle, I cannot help but think of the military school in Charlestown, South Carolina. However, of this I am not completely sure. The prior image can also be ascertained in the title and takes us in a completely different direction. Acqua Alta (5) is one of four images rooted to the landscape. It depicts five cats grasping a single dock piling partially submerged in a body of water. Acqua alta is the Italian term used to describe the exceptional peaks in tide that rise periodically in Venice on the northern Adriatic Sea. Though naturally occurring, these tides have been increasing with global warming and are a major factor contributing to the sinking of the soil on which Venice is built. Consequently, Larkin places the cats in a precarious position, clinging to the piling, surrounded by rising waters, as the arched façade of a Renaissance building tilts in the background.
So, what is the artist saying? Your guess is as good as mine. There is clearly an element of conflict here, but it is unclear if it is between the cats and the fairies, Attack at Dawn (7) or the cats and the environment, Acqua Alta (5) and The Tempest (9). What is clear is that the cats have the day, and that art plays no small part. The two earth-bound etchings that say this best are His Master’s Voice (8), set on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, and The Fall of Man (10), located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Both etchings are tour de force examples of Larkin’s skill in the medium. The Fall of Man (10) in particular, is worthy of extended viewing. Here we see ten cats occupying the museum’s upper balcony surrounding the grand staircase. The painting in the distance is The Fall of the Rebel Angels by the Baroque painter, Luca Giordano. The cats mill around as if visiting for the day. Their nonchalant demeanor exists in perfect contrast to the struggle going on in the painting. It affirms what most people who live with cats come to know through experience, any human/feline relationship exists at the cat’s discretion. The fall of man is that we, in our humanity, believe we are in control.
I invite you to peruse the complete set here, though I’m sure you know that photographs are but a shadow of the actual artworks. The complete suit of Alan Larkin’s cat etchings will be on display through December, 2022 at The Unintended Curator Gallery in Culver, Indiana. Images of the individual etchings are provided here in order of the suit. Individual etchings or the complete suit may be acquired through contact with the gallery or through Alan Larkin’s website.https://alanlarkin.net/