Even leaving aside their scarcity in highbrow galleries and happening-lite installation work, animals in visual art have never been more popular. That's almost entirely due to the Internet, where lolcats and other endlessly personified zoological memes have formed a vast, metareferential, and impossibly weird mirror society of humanity. It may not be what most people call "fine art," but it still offers plenty to think about.
The illustrations of Portland artist Jada Fitch don't resemble lolcats or ponified video-game characters, but they nonetheless rely on something learned from digital culture. (Let's just say it's not a surprise to learn she sells them as background images for Apple products.) Fitch makes detailed, colorful, and quietly quixotic tableaux born from the imagination alone. Unlike comic art, they contain no dialogue, and exist exclusively within one frame and without external narrative context — or at least if there is any, we don't see it. In one picture, a monstrously large dog with an ass's torso stands over a sleepy illustrated colonial village, its jaws readied to take a mouthful of a sloping roof. In another, a man and a woman converse on a sofa at a crowded party in what looks like 1970s America, where a great deal can be inferred from their body language. In a third, a group of scantily clad, vaguely avian women make a habitat in a knotty Seussian tree.
But imagination isn't solely the servant of fantasy. Many of Fitch's drawings fixate on a banal, actionless setting, which she makes fresh with some flourish of detail or odd point of view. Her colors are bold and cover the spectrum, but they seldom betray the context of her subjects. She uses autumnal colors for a cluster of turkeys in the woods, a punchy grayscale for five fat winter songbirds on a cranberry branch, and surreally bright blues and ochres for a scene that would be alien to this planet. While the imaginative reach of her settings has no bounds, the common vocabulary of her illustrations, even when they aren't directly present, is animals.
Fitch understands animals, mankind's ubiquitous muse, very well, and in a new show at the Green Hand Bookshop — a collection of studies along the food chain — she brings to life 20 creatures in graphite, watercolor, and colored pencil, capturing them in a variety of poses as if lifted from one of her own fantastical worlds. The body of her "Water Fowl" lurches forward while its neck cranes back. Her mangy, lupine "Cat" gazes haggardly into the foreground; the slender, rat-like "Wolf" creeps along with snout to the ground.
Though Fitch renders them on a backdrop of white, such detail gives her subjects the feeling of being captured in medias res. And when it isn't the illusion of locomotion that gets her animals feeling lively, it's some fancifully illustrated detail: like with the bubbling, handsomely patterned surface of "Octopus" or the bulbous carapace of her "Turtle." Those which lack that quality, like the symmetrical, emblematic "Crab" or the inert, poached-in-water effect of "Sea Horse," carry a talismanic vibe that doesn't live up to the artist's knack for vivacity.