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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

ANIME MUNDI: All the Same Soul
an afternoon with sculptor/painter Gillian Jagger by Ross Rice

“Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.”

- Plato, 4 B.C.

“I believe that the way of perceiving that I have developed living in nature leads to a shared sense of wholeness, to a sense of in-commonness of our mutual inter-connected survival. My work tries to speak as part of something already existing, not a product of something I 'made up.' My work has been one long search to find what really is common to us all in nature.”

- excerpt from Gillian Jagger’s artist statement

From her birthplace in pre-WWII London, through her late ‘50s-early ‘70s artistic development in the hip Manhattan art scene, up to her recent work as an educator and staunch proponent of animal rights in the Hudson Valley, Gillian Jagger has had quite the amazing journey. Closely following artist and gallery owner Denny Dillon's car out on Route 209 to meet Gillian at the five-barn farm outside of Kerhonkson she shares with her partner Consuelo (Connie) Mander, I’m having a mini-amazing journey of my own, enjoying the rolling farmland and late afternoon view of the Gunks, heading out on Rte. 209.

We’re greeted by Gillian and a congregation of dogs as we pull in next to the refurbished farmhouse. She is so enthusiastic and energetic, it’s inconceivable that Gillian will soon be 80 years old; she’s definitely not the rocking chair type. She leads us into a workspace in one of the barns, which are used for both art storage and creation and also functions as a sanctuary for several dogs, cows, and horses; some of which provide modeling services for the artist’s recent works. Stable and studio co-exist alongside each other; it’s not always clear where one leaves off and the other starts.

It’s much the same viewing the art of Gillian Jagger, with recent works to be shown in an upcoming collaborative show between Denny’s Drawing Room Gallery and neighbor Chrissy Glenn’s Pearl Arts Gallery, both in Stone Ridge. With most of her work derived from natural sources and/or found objects—or “found life,” as Gillian prefers to call them—one can ask a similar question: if art is the reflection of the subject, where does the subject end and the art begin?

When your mother’s grandfather and mother are both famous sculptors, and your father—Charles Sargent Jagger—is one of the world’s most famous sculptors of WWI war memorials, staying with the family tradition can be quite daunting. Gillian laughs: “No, I swore I’d never be a sculptor.”

By all accounts Gillian endured a difficult childhood—she lost both her father and only sister by the time she turned ten, and her mother relocated to Buffalo, New York at the beginning of the Second World War. Emotional estrangement from her mother coupled with empathy for her real “home” Great Britain—then under attack from Germany—helped incubate a young artistic soul, tempered by the notoriously high-pressured atmosphere of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). After a tumultuous academic career Gillian graduated—as a painter—in 1953, mentored by Balcomb Greene (1904-1990), and made her way to New York City, then in its heyday of Abstract Expressionism.

Quickly earning respect and encouragement from the Manhattan scene—Andy Warhol famously told her “you’re the real thing,”—Gillian eschewed Pop Art's eventual turn towards commercialism and consumer culture, preferring the natural or utilitarian to the artificial. She literally started from the ground up, making plaster molds of manhole covers, odd footprints, truck tracks in Central Park, revealing them almost as archeological finds. The early Sixties turned out to be a good time to find her individual voice: “All metaphor had dropped dead for all of us at that time. What can we do that’s honest?” The images she had in mind required liberation from the vertical canvas, needed three dimensions, with a strong connection to the earth. The family tradition apparently proved too strong; a world-class sculptor was born.

So it’s not surprising that today, on our way through the barn to Gillian’s drawing room, we enter a room housing some pieces from her 1990s natural wood series, rendered from enormous logs cut from dead trees on the property. When one old tree fell apart on the spot, Gillian liked the lines and textures she saw, so she dragged the log pieces home, and after treating and subtly coloring them, made the most of the resulting symbiotic shapes. Powerful and natural, they celebrate existence in splendid decay. It is impossible not to anthropomorphize them, especially her 1992 piece Te; its resemblance to an ancient sarcophagus is unmistakable. “It’s ribbed . . . and the way that it’s ribbed and it flexes, and even the shoulders . . . it’s got a weird cut! It gave me such solace that we weren’t the only things invented like this, this ridiculous way,” she laughs.

But we’re not really here for the sculpture this time. “It’s been very recent that I’ve had this rush on drawings,” Gillian admits. It is indeed an interesting twist, but certainly not out of character; Gillian has after all been teaching drawing and painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for forty years (now a professor emeritus), and she is prone on occasion to intense rushes of productivity with pencil, crayon, and brush.

Walking into the drawing room, you feel yourself surrounded, all eyes on you. Looking around, the motif becomes clear: close up views of cows gazing at the viewer, often through the confines of barbed-wire fences. Other large-scale drawings show supine cows at life size, but the beasts are not at rest; a defiant tension resonates in black and white strokes. A closer look shows some are not at all in repose, but rather helplessly awaiting slaughter.

Incongruously, a small group of dog paintings sits in the corner, with the dogs—though skillfully rendered—oddly devoid of empathy, like they’re looking off-camera. Gillian says that she painted them to sell for fundraising on behalf of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, for a recent art auction. Their non-committal stares serve to bring the more direct gazes of the cows into stark relief. Gillian’s message could not be more clear: animal is not servant to the human, there needs to be an understanding, an agreement. “You know, they’re the first animals to ever pause—in the history of mankind—to pause and look at us, way before any other animal did. Horses didn’t stop to look at us, but cows did!” To the everlasting dismay of cattlekind since, no doubt.

Oddly enough, the impetus for this outburst of drawings was a work she came across in an art compilation by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) titled The Head of a Stag Killed by an Arrow, the dead subject with glazed eye regarding the viewer, arrow protruding from forehead. The way Dürer captured a sense of empathy and forgiveness in the deathgaze spoke volumes to her. “At a time when nobody gave a damn (about animals), he gave a damn. It was so touching, I was staring at it for days. I thought, if he could do this . . . and I love animals so much . . . why can’t I come in close to them again instead of being hands off?”

Without whacking people over the head with what is clearly a strong and heartfelt opinion—“I can not do a critical statement, it’s too overpowering.”—still Gillian makes it clear in every work she does: in the grand scheme of things, animals are every bit as significant as humans, and should be treated with respect accordingly.

The more recent, smaller drawings show an artist trying to reach for the soul of the animal, as it somewhat incuriously regards the artist. “I thought, why can’t I get compassion . . . why can’t I bring that out? Instead of that Damien Hirst-ey type of dead animals, that meanness and indifference of ours come out that way . . . why can’t I do the opposite?”

“In that one, where it was almost an enlargement of it, a life size, it had in it that kind of a past feeling . . . of something you could love. What really got me drawing the smaller pieces . . . a friend once said that this shift is more where they confront you; before that I was feeling that they were sad, that I was sorry for them. Here it’s more: it’s looking at you, it’s asking you a question.”

To visit Gillian Jagger and to pass up the privilege of seeing her sculpture masterworks is a crime I’ll not commit, so we pile into Denny’s car to pop over to the “big barn,” just a mile or so down the road, where they—and some of the cows Gillian and Connie have rescued, nurtured, and based images on—reside.

Though many great works led up to it, Gillian reached a real peak in the mid to late ‘90s, creating a series of complex and powerful hanging works that are utterly unforgettable. Having progressed from impressions of inanimate objects, through flow studies in cement and lead, through the aforementioned large-scale tree works that evoke breathing animal-like qualities, Gillian finally confronted the flesh, incorporating the carcass of a deer found on her property in her major hanging metal and stone work Matrice (1997-8).

She admits the inspiration was partially in response to seeing the sliced and formaldehyde preserved animal packages displayed at a Damien Hirst exhibition. “I was horrified. It was like everything was a joke; there was no feeling. The animal, even though it was there, had nothing to say, couldn’t talk.” Gillian’s deer in Matrice is doing more than talking, it was “in full cry.” In tandem with the equally stunning Rift (1999), it’s impossible not to be moved. The spiraling lines, the eruption of energy, juxtaposed with preserved and mummified remains and bones of animals, suggest both immense suffering and ultimate triumph of the soul. The sculptures are extremely complicated hanging structures, requiring extraordinary precision to recreate in a gallery. And unlike Hirst’s preserved meat, these animals are still very much alive, immortalized with respect.

So when we come to Absence of Faith (2001), we see the next step in her vision. Faith was one of Gillian and Connie’s horses, who had accidentally impaled herself on a 4 x 4 post, and somehow managed to free herself and make it back to her stall, where she quickly passed away. Gillian managed to get a final plaster cast of her beloved pet, but the cold made it hard to set, and she ended up with a series of fragments that she later reassembled and suspended. The result suggests the moment where the soul departs the flesh. Especially after the intensity and brutality of Rift and Matrice, the effect is a sense of spiritual transcendence. Animals have souls too, as real as human ones.

I feel like I’ve really been on a journey now, leaving the big barn. I feel changed; there is no way I can look at a cow or a horse the same way again, having seen them regard me through Gillian’s lens. And I can’t say I’ve been proselytized or preached to; the artist has allowed me the use of her vision for a moment. Gillian puts it best, of course.

“I don’t want to manipulate the truth. I want you to see the same truth I see, and I don’t want to make it up. I’m clever at drawing and whatever . . . but I don’t want to use it that way.”

“When I look at the body of a dead deer that I have found naturally mummified by the sun, lying ignored by passersby on the side of the road, and when I hang it in my studio as part of an installation, I see that I am connected to that deer. That in its death, it has preserved the image and the spirit of nature. Henry More (1614-1687), following Plato, called this ‘spirit of nature, soul of the world, the anima mundi.’ He felt this mysterious power holds the world together. I have come to this same belief.”

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