‘Master’ing Mythology

Ellen Tanner, Aristaeus, Keeper of Bees, 2016, oil on panel, 6×14 in., Collection of Kim and Roy Steinhagen, Beaumont, Texas

AMSET hosts Ellen Tanner’s exploration of classic tales

Beaumont may not have collections of Old Masters like in Paris or Florence, but the Bastrop-based painter Ellen Tanner continues their work in the precise handling of her medium and in pushing the boundaries of figurative representation.

Her exhibition, “Fables, Families and Myths,” on view now at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, presents a collection of small scale oil paintings and mixed-media displays that range from idyllic fairytale scenes to familiar Greek myths. One painting is perhaps an homage to Northern Renaissance masters in its rendering of the domestic space.

While her works are connected to the old tales that have been floating around in the collective conscious for the past several thousand years or so, they are rooted in the present with their influence by a different kind of visual art — photography.

Works like “The Eagle and the Red Fox” (2013) explicitly reference a moral tale from Aesop’s Fables. However, Tanner chooses to represent the moment that the tragedy — the tree being burned down by the fox in response to the eagle snatching her cub — could have been prevented if only the eagle had returned the cub. “The Fox and The Crow” (2008) is another fable that shows the exact moment the crow opens its mouth to sing and the cheese begins its fall to the mouth of the clever fox below.

Ellen Tanner, Baird Family (detail), 2015, oil on panel in Tramp art frame, oil on panel in thermoplastic Union case, 13 1/4 x 14 x 5 1/4 in. and 3 3/4 x 6 1/4 x 1/4 in. open case, Private Collection, Houston, Texas

While Old Master paintings often try to think outside of the box in their representation of common themes, Tanner differs in this photographic influence of “the decisive moment” — capturing the instant that the narrative froze, the moment the story is going to change — often for the worst, such as the case of the death of the eaglets and the crow’s loss of its cheese.

Tanner’s paintings representing subjects from Greek mythology show other decisive moments. One can almost feel the gasp of air of Persephone in “Persephone and Hades” (2017) as she is milliseconds from her forced annual descent into the Underworld, bringing with her the end of both the harvest season and the happiness of her mother, Demeter. “Aristaeus, Keeper of the Bees” (2016) is reminiscent of a Botticelli piece in a coastal Italianesque landscape, where one can see mountains and islands in the distance, with three graces dancing in the woods, and elongated limbs on contraposed figures. Tanner represents the moment the minor god Aristaeus (son of Apollo) slaughtered the fourth bull required as the final sacrifice to Eurydice’s nymphs for chasing Eurydice to her death. This allows the release of his formerly destroyed and beloved bees from the carcasses of the sacrificed animals.

On the other side of the gallery Tanner’s paintings shrink even more, and their display in hinged and small frames seem to fit in more with the kinds of things one would see in the historic Victorian houses than in a contemporary painting exhibition. However, the portraits inside are not of those who reside in historic houses but rather of imaginary characters with made-up stories that reflect the kind of tales we hear about the past. For example, “Jones Family” (2014) features a display case that contains a portrait of Della and mourning embroidery — ringlets of baby hair from her dead siblings are sewn and displayed alongside other family portraits. The Jones were, “A well to do and middle-class couple in Savannah, Georgia” according to Tanner’s gallery guide, and in this narrative it was probably Della, an anthropomorphized pig dressed as a nine year old girl, who did the embroidery.

The fictional representation through animal portraiture can be traced to the psychological notion of the death drive — the desire to be remembered or leave a document of oneself that continues to occupy the present even when one eventually succumbs to death. In the 19th century, photography was a new invention and was not readily available to everyone, usually just to those who could afford such an expensive technology. After the turn of the 20th century, however, photography became more affordable and available to the masses.

Today, photography is inevitable — we are surveilled most places in public, and we use cell phone cameras daily (and for some hourly). Tanner’s miniature animal portraiture, which at first glance may seem bizarre, is no stranger than our obsession with leaving a trace of ourselves through the click of a button and a lens. The painter’s imagination in this series of Victorian animal portraiture, while seemingly boundless, is rooted in our own human anxieties of being remembered after our own demise.

“Fables, Families and Myths” by Ellen Tanner is on view until March 4.

The Art Museum of Southeast Texas is located at 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont.

For more information, visit amset.org.

Caitlin Duerler, ISSUE staff writer

Ellen Tanner, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, 2013, oil on panel, 12×16 in., Collection of Ilene and Paul Barr, Austin, Texas