Olivier Richon – Animals looking sideways

In Saki’s short story ‘On Approval’, a painter pursues what the writer calls “an unusual and unvarying” theme. His pictures represent the best-known streets and public spaces of London, decayed and depopulated, yet not entirely uninhabited : in the place of human metroplitans, these sensational studies offer a series of wild and exotic beasts. How difficult to choose between ‘Hyaenas asleep in Euston Station’ and ‘Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square’, or even the stately ‘Sand-grouse roosting on the Albert Memorial’. Without having attempted ( yet ) to materialise these fictional studies, Olivier Richon might situate his work in the tradition of Saki’s painter. They share an interest in out-of-place animals, and also, perhaps, in the title motif of Richon’s recent work : the allegory.


The subjects of Saki’s painter may have been “unvarying”, but the writer was no doubt misguided in calling them “unusual”. Art history is replete with representations of out-of-place animals : one has only to think of the extended chain of depictions of St Jerome, surrounded in his study or in the wilderness by wild beasts which are entirely out of their habitat. These examples, however, pose at least two questions : what does it mean for an animal to be out-of-place? And what is the nature of the animal we are looking at?


The second of these questions might seem to have an obvious answer. The animal is there as a symbol : the dog for fidelity, the pheasant for redemption, the parrot for Immaculate Conception, and so on. The history of the shifting symbolic function of animals has been the subject of innumerable scholarly studies. According to one view, as animals gradually lost these iconographic coordinates, their true nature as animals took centre stage : allegories lost out to animalness. This argument, of course, is simplistic. Before we encounter animals, they exist in stories, in myths, in representation, and when we do encounter them, their being as animals is entirely saturated with representation. They are, to use the title of a recent collection of essays, ‘signifying animals’.


It is thus impossible to get the allegory out of animals. Richon’s work from the mid- to the late 80s involved a series of tableaux in which traditional allegorical scenes were redrafted in a highly stylised and formal manner, and given a witty edge by the choice of caption and playful arrangement of the elements. The stuffed animals which were there in the service of allegorical representation seemed to wink back at the viewer, giving allegory an edge of parody. The ‘Imitatio Sapiens’ series in which a monkey stares at a section of a well-known classical painting pushed this theme even further, although, in contrast to his earlier work, the monkey is now in the place of a spectator : it is looking at an art work rather than simply being looked at.


The choice of this creature, traditionally interpreted as a parody of man, cheekily reflects the place of the art viewer and suggests that the monkey’s apparent incomprehension is our own. Likewise, its ineffability suggests our own stupidity as art viewers, a theme that is elaborated in Richon’s later work in which a series of dead animals are placed on a rich velvet drape and lit as if to enhance their attractiveness. The formal features of the arrangement contrast with the brute, ineffable nature of the squid and fish heads on display : the horrors of the marketplace with its trade in flesh intrude into the stylised space of representation.


These animals that haunt Richon’s work all seem out-of-place : a monkey surveying a classical painting, a squid on velvet, and, in the newer work, wild beasts in the English countryside and a group of farmyard animals in an art college. These works invite us to return to our first question : what does it mean for an animal to be out-of-place? If we take the example of the St Jerome iconography, the animals may be far from their natural habitat, but as creatures of discourse, they might be exactly where they belong. As visualised elements of a narrative, they are part of a story, vehicles for the transmission of a message. As sign or allegory, it is difficult for an animal to be out-of-place.


And since we can never really get the allegory out of animals, how could they be where they shouldn’t? Even if we suppose that some creature belongs in a prairie or a jungle, these ideas are produced by discourse. Our ideas of belonging are constructed ones. This artificiality organises, indeed, the very flesh of the animals’s body : Richon’s rhinoceros, for example, looks too much like a model for us not to question its reality as a living creature. And when animals inhabit art, the very fact of interpreting the picture gives them a place : we have no choice but to accept that in art, animals can never be out-of-place. But what can be out-of-place is perhaps less the animal than the viewer him or herself, as Richon’s work suggests.


Is the art monkey of the ‘Imitatio Sapiens’ series that embodies the viewer’s gaze really so distant from the fauna that roam around the art academy at Valenciennes? Take the case of the two geese. One might take this picture first as an encomium to togetherness. Framed in a pose that evokes postcard affection, their whiteness contrasts the grim and dirty alley. Wherever they are, they have each other. As we look closer, however, we see that they are missing each other. Each has its gaze directed at an angle oblique to the other, and their bodies fail to coincide. Togetherness becomes separateness. Although their form evokes symmetry, their attention is focused beyond the partner.


This motif of attention, which runs through the art academy series, takes us back to the art monkey. While the walls of the surrounding buildings slide towards their vanishing point, pulling our own gaze with them, the geese stare sideways. The formal composition of this piece refers strongly to the laws of perspective, laws which work to position the viewer, to unify space and to organise our gaze. The walls, in fact, seem to materialise perspective lines, and the colour contrasts in the image guide our eye to a focal point. But the geese aren’t too interested in all this, as if our ways of directing the eye had no purchase for them. And as viewers, their contemplation of a brick wall removes the vanity from our own acts of seeing.


The other animals also mimic our gaze. The turkey appeals blankly to the closed door in front of it, while the pigs gaze at something ( or nothing ) that is obscure to us. They look neither at us, the camera, or at their means of exit, the door, but sideways, like the two geese and most of the animals at large in the countryside shots. The goat also looks sideways in an image that evokes Buridan’s ass, caught forever between two piles of hay, unable to decide which one it should feed from.


It is hard not to suppose a parody here of the conceit of the viewer of art, the animals at home in an art college and busy in the act of looking, an act which we assume to be either pointless or the result of perplexity or ignorance. Richon’s title ‘Allegory’ thus shifts to target the viewer of art rather than the virtues or vices we might more immediately associate with the animals he has gathered. He shows us, perhaps, how an out-of-place animal can generate a more out-of-place viewer.