Trey Friedman took out his camera. He had set up a miniature photography studio on the dining table, smack in the middle of it. He had fashioned a small box with a Plexiglas front, and mounted lights on either side, and inside, attached a backdrop of white seamless paper. His subject for his shoot was waiting within easy reach. A deer mouse who had made a wrong turn into a live trap. He wanted to photograph him, reference shots from which to sketch.
As you might expect, the mouse didn’t behave—or rather he did behave like a mouse. He scurried back and forth, drummed his front paws, stood up on his hind legs, looking for a way to escape. And when he calmed down, he crouched in a corner, his back toward the lens. But with patience and a fast shutter, Friedman was able to capture him in a variety of poses.
For years the artist had been trying to find a way to paint the wildlife. It was a natural extension of the theme that has thread throughout his figurative works and landscapes since he started painting in his early teens: the discomfort of man at the edge of the forest, the mess we make in trying to tame the wilderness. But he always ended up omitting any creatures. He argued that we couldn’t really see animals—as our equals with whom we share the land; that we are blinded by the sheer ubiquity of images and by our perceptions and by our fears, by the kitsch, the cuddly and the fierce, the symbolism and the metaphor. Then upon meeting a wildlife rehabilitator he saw an opportunity to show not only the adverse effect of man’s relationship with nature but the unanticipated benefit as well. Through a series of paintings of mammals who were being rehabilitated, having been hit by a car, having lost their mother or their habitat, their tree chopped down, he could give them the prominence they deserved, an animal-centric motive for representation—Chuck Close-up-close style, enormous portraits centered on paper.
A couple of squirrels, an opossum, a baby raccoon, and a small brown bat, each with his/her own tale. And the deer mouse. The oil paintings were completed, framed and hung in the studio.
The reaction was like the brittle leaves in the fall.
His dealer said, “You know…these are not for our clients.” The rehabber lamented, “Oh, I thought the paintings were going to be bigger.” A friend laughed nervously, facing one of the squirrels, “It’s staring at me.” The distinguished elder art patron told Friedman he admired his clear and unwavering intention in his art and his solid technique, and added, “I can see what you are doing here. But animals—” The patron’s wife joined in, “The eyes! They’re frightening!”
It wasn’t that these individuals couldn’t see the animals but that the animals could see them.
(Image: Close Mouse, 2009, Oil on paper, 32 x 24 in. courtesy of the artist, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)