Art by celebrities is often laughable. But there’s nothing unintentionally funny about the technically excellent paintings of Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves. He doesn’t play for fun either. There are no jokes here, just accurate and intense depictions of birds.
Moir, an avid birdwatcher, has obviously spent a lot of time observing nature, let alone honing his style. His studies of wrens, finches, waterfowl, a red kite, a nightingale and many others are finely observed and lovingly detailed works of ornithology. The studied objectivity of these bird portraits – beautifully capturing the crinkly skin and claws of the feet gripping the branches, the softness and structure of the feathers and the vivid hues set against the sky – bring the Victorian tradition of art to life. meticulous animal husbandry.
Yet as you settle into this silent art, sucked into the mentality of Moir’s hobby as an ornithologist, surrealism begins to creep in after all. Blue Tit & Vim – imagine the title read by Reeves – depicts a small bird perched atop an empty bleach container. It suddenly tears us away from pure nature in an unsightly glimpse of everyday pollution. Still, it’s funny, and it’s pop art, as if the great American ornithologist John James Audubon had been crossed with the early Warhols. It’s also a neat embodiment of the classic definition of a surreal image as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”
Birds are surrealism’s favorite creatures. From Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, to Max Ernst’s identification with the bird-headed shaman Loplop and his painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, to Alfred Hitchcock’s surreal horror, The Birds , these chirping inhabitants of the sky have haunted the dreams of modern art. And the longer you spend in Moir’s show, the weirder his birds get.
The eyes are fixed on you. Four portraits of owls dazzle large, flat faces, their glassy, reflective depths brilliantly captured in highly compelling watercolor work. You can see the world reflected in them. What do owls think? An oil painting of a snowy owl is even more intense, its gaze stepping from reality into a dreamlike world of warm colors where it floats mystically.
After being spooked by the owls, you see eyes everywhere. The exhibition, it becomes obvious, is not so much about us looking at the birds as about the birds looking at us. Behind the veil of his humor, it turns out that Moir is not just a romantic but a radical. Hints of avian awareness spring from his photos. Downstairs, in a cluttered office where some of his works are on display in a more atmospheric way (they would really look great in the gothic setting of the natural history museum, rather than a white-walled gallery), is his painting of a rhinoceros whose horn has turned into an arm giving humanity the middle finger.
Moir’s oil paintings are (so far) less authoritative than his watercolors. They are a bit impetuous. But it is the exhibition of an artist who is still developing: it is a courageous and modest demonstration of his continuous autodidact. That’s why drawing and painting are so beautiful. Whoever you are and whatever your age, you can develop the skills and sensitivity needed to paint from nature. Moir, at 63, is leading by example.
Beyond the know-how, it is the love of nature that radiates. You end up feeling stared at by birds that can see all of our destructiveness. Blamed so that Vim can.