Animal Images and the Image as Animal: Tricia Cline’s Exiles in Lower Utopia

Exile of the Deer, Tricia Cline. Porcelain. 2008.

I recently stumbled upon Tricia Cline’s porcelain sculptures (thank you, art pinners on Pinterest!). Her work has a quality that I tend to (mostly subconsciously) seek out and appreciate in all art forms — an otherworldliness, often lovely, but a little strange, unsettling, maybe creepy, though not in any particularly obvious way. Which is, incidentally, how many of my stories have been described. I guess it’s my thing. Anyway, I went to her website and became even more fascinated by her work after reading the artist’s statement for her most recent series of sculptures, Exiles in Lower Utopia. It’s beautifully worded, so instead of paraphrasing, I’m providing it below in its entirety:

This body of work is an ode to the Animal, its ability to perceive, and our return to that perception. An animal is its very form. Its function is its form. A dog runs at full speed, a distinct scent or sound alters its direction. The legs, the nose, the ears of the dog are its function, its bliss. When an animal recognizes another animal it reads with an instinctual eye the character in the form- the essential nature in the form before it. Its text is not a concept about what it’s looking at but a full-bodied response to the shape, smell, movement, and stance of the image in front of it. The language of animals is the language of images. An image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal. 

This is the ode–to reconnect with our own animal perception is to clarify and heighten our perception of who and what we are in the moment… to go beyond the limited mental concepts of who we think we are… to an awareness of oneself that is infinitely more vast. The Exiles migrate between the human world and the animal world and carry this awareness on their backs. They are the silent embodiment of this Quest. They understand the language of animals and are self-appointed ambassadors from that world. They are firmly seated, in the language of animals, the language of imagery. They have succeeded by virtue of being.

The key points for me are: 1) to read something by its image is not necessarily to limit because “an image is not an idea with a defined meaning, it is itself an animal,” and 2) reconnecting with our animal selves is a task that, rather than taking us backward, moves us forward into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. By understanding an image (that is, one’s perception of a thing) as an animal itself — something complex, evasive and in constant movement — on its own terms, rather than trying to define and redefine it through static statements that ultimately fall short, we come closer to seeing things as they truly are. In this way, Cline’s Exiles function as envoys and icons to remind us of our secret, truer selves whose virtues are merely being and seeing.

Literature has its place on this path as well, in spite of its form being limited to words (which is what makes writing so difficult — it’s the least sensual medium of all). As with other art forms, the key to creating truthful literature is to create images, and to do this, one must avoid making direct statements about things. We have to beat around the bush, to talk around a subject — not to evade, but to more clearly illustrate the ineffable. Creating literature — stories, poetry, essays, plays — is not about making some single, absolute declaration; it’s about creating, out of nothing, those image-animals that breathe on their own, that have layers of secrets and truths. It is to create something that allows others to create their own image-animals.

Flannery O’Connor said in her speech-turned-essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks” because the truth of the clerk is best communicated by literal details like his wearing list slippers than any abstract and frankly stated “grand ideas and bristling emotions”  that a writer might thrust on him. We humans are sensual creatures, just like the other animals around us, and in spite of our impressive ability to think abstractly, we still (and have always and will always) respond most strongly to that which we perceive through our senses. And so it is through complex, free and living images liberated from vain abstractions (e.g. “bad,” “ugly,” “moral,” “beautiful”) that we perceive truth. Our labor is to see things as they are — in all their complexity — and then hold our tongues, rather than whittle them down to concrete, abstract terms.

You can view more of Cline’s images on her website (linked above). And you’re welcome to share your thoughts on her work (and my words) below.

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