Ever met someone and thought they looked familiar… then realised they shared an uncanny resemblance with your cat, Patootie? Or caught yourself accidentally envisioning your exotic summer fling, Enrique Fernandez-de la Cruz, taking part in the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona? How about having your resolve melted by your daughter’s puppy-dog eyes?
It seems there’s a bit of animal in us all, and vice versa – something that Australian artist Melissa Egan has noticed and, what’s more, turned into a career.
It’s thanks to her portrayal of very human emotions in anthropomorphic animals – from polar bears marooned on a kangaroo-infested desert island, to turban wearing stoats and cats in floral dresses – that she has been able to forge such a strong following, and have us scrambling to her latest exhibition, Imagine. “I have begun using animals in my paintings as metaphors for the human condition, imbuing them with personalities and characteristics to which we can all relate,” says Melissa.
Lately, it’s been rare for the artist to include humans in her works. “Animals are becoming more prevalent in my work, and people becoming less,” she says.
“I photograph a lot of animals that are in my paintings, but as there are no polar bears wandering around here, I have referenced other sources,” says Melissa.
“I have a few friends who model for me and I dress them in different outfits that
are appropriate for the painting. As I said to a friend who was modelling for me, ‘Don’t worry about what you look like, you are going to be a stoat’.”
Our ability to relate to her works lies in the way she is able to represent her models’ mannerisms in the characters that she draws up, and the way she positions them against dreamy yet realistic backgrounds reflective of the Australian landscape.
“I tend to paint landscapes that I am familiar with, and as I am surrounded by the Australian bush, it often translates into my work,” Melissa says. “However, I grew up in Tasmania so consequently I am occasionally drawn to a more European ambience.”
That ambience is reflected through the artist’s style, which is also inspired by a blend of classical, contemporary and surrealist genres.
“I am not really influenced by any one artist, but I greatly admire the European masters such as Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix and Velazquez,” she says. “I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to become an artist, but arrived at it by circumstance or chance, as we do with most things in life. However, I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that nurtured our passions and talents, and was surrounded by encouragement, with no expectations of following a set, conventional career path.”
And seeing her portrayal of gravity-defying animals (swans and foxes are shown hiding atop a leafy tree in Night Tales), you know convention just isn’t Melissa’s thing. Instead, recognition is achieved through the artist’s many solo and group exhibitions, and through a number of art awards, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales Sir John Sulman Prize, for which she was a finalist last year.
“The metaphoric hare has been the subject of stories and fables, reflecting aspects of our own humanity,” Melissa says of Everybody Hurts Sometime, her 2014 entry into the competition. “This hare, named Brian, wears a pink bandage, taking him out of the realms of traditional landscape, into the contemporary world where problems still abound. The bandage covers unknown wounds to which we are all subjected, while the healing properties of the bandage signify a unity between the environment and humanity – acting as a symbol of hope for the future.”
One hope you can rely on, is that Melissa will always deliver on aesthetics, even if the focus of her works – circulating around the natural environment and our close, yet semi-destructive relationship with it – can sometimes be dark or troubling.
“I hope to provoke a visual appeal,” she says, “as I myself would rather look at a work of beauty than one of ugliness.”
Imagine, Linton and Kay Galleries, Perth City, May 9-26.