Deep in the Art of Dixie

Primal, yet puzzling.

Such is the abstract appeal of "Confrontations," an exhibit-size puzzle book of primal images interpreted through the artistic eye of Tennessee painter Erin Anfinson, displayed through late August at the Charleston Heights Arts Center.

"People have to pull it apart to see what’s really there," says Jeanne Voltura, gallery coordinator for the city of Las Vegas. "They know it’s about some kind of nature and confrontation because of the title, but they have to say, ‘What’s in there? I can see this, this and this.’ It’s almost like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ "

Hide-and-seek, fine art-style. Suss out the creatures squaring off in the titular confrontations, set in the wilds of nature and couched inside works that look like they were overlaid in military camouflage.

Among the bursts of dots and sweeping strokes of green, white and brown, is that a pair of moose? Are they brutally fighting or gracefully dancing? Are those bulls butting heads, horns locked, splashes of color lining the underbelly of each beast beneath stocky beige bodies? Somewhere within that nebulous gray-yellow mold, are those … yes, those emerging shapes coalesce into the beaks of four fierce birds in what soon might erupt into an aviary jungle rumble.

"I ask people what they see, and a lot of times people think there are dinosaurs, something completely not in the painting," Anfinson says. "That’s what I loved about working on this series."

This art can be tough. Frustrating, too. But also energizing.

You’ll see what the artist shows you, which might be an outright lie compared to what your eyes tell you.

With titles ranging from aggressive to affectionate (hey, romance can be confrontational, too) — "Territorial Clash," "Rescue Attempt," "Signs of Affection," "Disagreement," "Squabble," "Cuddles" and "Stag Fight" — the pieces were assembled from computer clip art, Internet images and digital photos of landscapes taken by Anfinson in Tennessee and in her hometown in Iowa, capturing what is largely unseen by us civilized sorts: face-offs in the rugged realm of nature.

"Ever since I was a kid, animal imagery has been captivating for me — my parents were big outdoors people, so we’d spend a lot of time outdoors," Anfinson says. "That was a creative place for me. There’s something about the sense of danger with wildlife that keeps coming back to me. It’s like a spectacle."

Those might be two cats, the black one’s head cocked to the side trying to bite the other, rendered abstractly in green, white and beige. Or it might not. Over there, those could be two horses, one contentedly resting its head against the other’s muscular form. Or not. And in that one, you can possibly-maybe-perhaps make out an imposing mammal amid a gaggle of small, white creatures. … Rabbits? Mutant albino lizards?

"I always wonder whether I should tell people what are in the paintings, because I don’t want to spoil it," says Anfinson, an assistant professor of art at Middle Tennessee State University who regularly displays her work at local, regional and national exhibitions. "I want them to go in and out of focus and find things based on their own perceptions or a little clue I give them about what the animals may or may not be."

Characterizing the images as dreamlike, Voltura recalls seeing children just out of a performance at the center, crossing over to the gallery for a closer inspection of Anfinson’s intriguing inventions. "They were spending some time in there, the kids looking at it," Voltura says. "In our galleries, we’ll show traditional work, but I always hope there’s a little more below the surface of it, a concept that pushes you beyond the traditional and makes you think a little."

Think — as in puzzling out that melange of opaque faces of the animal kingdom, legs apparently flung here and there, maybe belonging to wolves. Maybe not. Or the hulking black shadows of bears over there, above them a green flock of … ducks? Yes? No? And right here, in front of an expanse of trees jutting into a body of water, what appears to be a quite agitated bear on shore, improbably rearing up against a trio of sharks, jaws frighteningly bared, but also resembling a fishy a cappella group in full-throated harmony. (At least it looks a cappella. Maybe there’s some unseen backup band of humpback whales wailing on piano, bass and drums.) Is that laughably, ridiculously wrong? Yes. And no.

"I had a childlike fascination with wildlife," Anfinson says. "There’s a sense of wonder that the natural world still has for me."

So, Erin, what is that: aardvark or mongoose?

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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