Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Art review: 'Dinotopia' light, entertaining exhibit for our inner kids

The Excursion‭ (‬1995‭); ‬illustration for‭
Dinotopia:‭ ‬Journey to Chandara,‭ ‬by James Gurney.

By Gretel Sarmiento

When not reduced to a still pile of bones,‭ ‬dinosaurs appear to us as skeletons trapped in glass cases.‭ ‬In two colors,‭ ‬usually:‭ ‬dark brown or white.

This summer,‭ ‬for three months,‭ ‬we can see them like never before.‭ ‬They play games,‭ ‬dance,‭ ‬sing,‭ ‬have their own alphabet and brush their teeth.‭ ‬They come in all colors:‭ ‬light and dark browns,‭ ‬grays,‭ ‬pinks.‭
Dinotopia:‭ ‬The Fantastical Art of James Gurney,‭ ‬running now through Sept.‭ ‬5‭ ‬at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach,‭ ‬consists of more than‭ ‬50‭ ‬original oil paintings from Gurney’s illustrated books‭ ‬Dinotopia:‭ ‬A Land Apart From Time‭ ‬(1992‭)‬,‭ ‬Dinotopia:‭ ‬The World Beneath‭ ‬(1995‭)‬,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Dinotopia:‭ ‬Journey to Chandara‭ (‬2007‭)‬.

‭“‬It’s great for the kids and their imagination,‭ ‬but the quality of the works is so high it appeals to adults,‭” ‬said Brianna Anderson-Guthrie,‭ ‬24.‭ ‬Dinotopia‭ ‬is‭ ‬her first‭ ‬official‭ ‬show as main curator.‭

The storyline behind the pictures follows the experiences of Professor Arthur Denison and his son Will on a mysterious island where dinosaurs and shipwrecked travelers from all over the world live in harmony.‭ ‬The three rooms housing this exhibit show us dinosaurs that are very much alive and still evolving,‭ ‬in an artist’s mind.‭

An apatosaurus is a yellow school bus that stops at each house while officials use red-tasseled poles to stop ongoing traffic.‭ ‬A brachiosaurus’s long neck is used‭ ‬by firefighters as a ladder.‭ ‬A ceratosaurus with a big ego attempts to walk on stilts.

The struggle of convincing adults to dig his picture books,‭ ‬which are actually not children-level reading,‭ ‬are nothing compared to the kid-adult struggle inside us as we walk this show.‭ ‬We know none of this is real,‭ ‬but then again,‭ ‬why not‭? ‬We rationalize it.‭ ‬We find it soothing,‭ ‬like a familiar lullaby.

Birthday Pageant‭ (‬1995‭); ‬illustration for‭
Dinotopia: ‭ ‬The World Beneath,‭ ‬by James Gurney.

Pieces‭ ‬such‭ ‬as‭ ‬Tuggle,‭ ‬featured on page‭ ‬59‭ ‬of the‭ ‬Chandara‭ ‬book,‭ ‬is one of many that steal that smile from us despite our conviction that this is a show for kids.‭ ‬In this game,‭ ‬where the first to fall‭ ‬to‭ ‬the ground loses,‭ ‬neither strength nor weight is a determining factor.‭ ‬Psychology is.‭ ‬A smaller player‭ (‬in this piece,‭ ‬a blonde girl‭) ‬can win by tricking a larger player‭ (‬a dinosaur‭) ‬into predicting a strong tug.‭ ‬Then a sudden release of tension will make the other fall backward.‭ ‬But in Gurney’s‭ ‬Tuggle,‭ ‬both players still look very determined to win.‭ ‬We can guess.‭ ‬

In the third room we find a nurturing oviraptor‭ –‬ once mistakenly thought by scientists to be egg thieves‭ ‬– cradling a dinosaur egg that needs to stay warm.‭ ‬A gentle and very warm piece,‭ ‬this is‭ ‬Outside the Hatchery‭ (‬Warming the Eggs‭)‬,‭ ‬an illustration from the‭ ‬Land Apart From Time book.‭ ‬In Dinotopia,‭ ‬most dinosaurs are born in the hatchery,‭ ‬where females go to lay their eggs in indoor nests.‭

Then there is‭ ‬Convoy Surrounded,‭ ‬an illustration for‭ ‬Dinotopia:‭ ‬The World Beneath.‭ ‬This is‭ ‬perhaps the most violent in the show,‭ ‬or at least less sweet than the other pictures.‭ ‬Turns out danger exists in‭ ‬Dinotopia,‭ ‬where going through tyrannosaurus lands is not exactly a picnic,‭ ‬hence the armor protecting the brachiosaur bus depicted here.

Garden of Hope‭ (‬1995‭); ‬illustration for
‭ ‬Dinotopia: The World Beneath,‭ ‬by James Gurney.

If bright abundant colors,‭ ‬slow movements and dreamy-like light reigned before,‭ ‬here everything changes.‭ ‬The light is quite dramatic and bright colors nonexistent,‭ ‬except for a touch of red on the left.‭ ‬The dinosaurs‭’ ‬aggressive stance tells us a battle is inevitable.‭ ‬We can move on to happier pieces or imagine the outcome in our minds.

Even if drama lives here,‭ ‬it is still an ideal world,‭ ‬given to us by an idealizing artist.‭

“There are many places in Dinotopia I haven’t been to,‭” ‬says Gurney,‭ ‬who lives in New York with his family.‭

He loves heading outside with a portable kit to‭ ‬observe the behavior of living things.‭ ‬He‭ ‬listens to classical music when painting skies and water.‭ ‬That mystical striking sky in the Waterfall City‭ ‬illustrations‭ ‬is‭ ‬probably connected to Mozart and Bach,‭ ‬two of Gurney’s favorite composers.‭ ‬Family members and neighbors play a role as his models.‭ ‬Sketching trips,‭ ‬such‭ ‬as the ones to Niagara Falls,‭ ‬Venice and the Grand Canyon,‭ ‬give illustrations like‭ ‬Dream Canyon a powerful realism and majestic presence.‭ ‬In Dinotopia,‭ ‬young pilots go to‭ ‬Dream Canyon to train to fly on gigantic winged pterosaurs,‭ ‬which are closely depicted in another fine piece titled‭ ‬Skybax Ryder.

Waterfall City:‭ ‬Afternoon Light‭ (‬2001‭); ‬illustration for
‭ ‬Dinotopia:‭ ‬Journey to Chandara,‭ ‬by James Gurney.

Pterosaurs,‭ ‬known as‭ ‬skybax‭ ‬in Dinotopia,‭ ‬were the largest creatures ever to fly.‭ ‬Depicted in this‭ ‬1992‭ ‬illustration is young Will doing what many young pilots on the island dream of:‭ ‬flying.‭ ‬For us it’s great because of the simple atmospheric perspective it offers.‭ ‬The images in the distance appear blurred,‭ ‬which only makes Will appear scarily high up.

Light,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬is the hardest thing to invent for this California-born author/artist.‭ ‬His new book,‭ ‬which discusses color and light,‭ ‬will be released in the fall.‭ ‬To study forms and the effects of light from all points of view,‭ ‬he builds models and maquettes,‭ ‬one of which has never been shown before.‭ ‬Making its debut here is a model of Bix,‭ ‬the‭ ‬parrot-beaked protoceratops in Dinotopia that speaks many languages and is one of the main characters.‭

As Bix,‭ ‬Gurney’s creations do unimaginable things but look scientifically accurate.‭

As if to reinforce this point,‭ ‬the museum has borrowed fossil specimens from the Broward College Graves Museum Collection.‭ ‬An‭ ‬allosaurus‭ ‬claw cast,‭ ‬an‭ ‬anatotitan‭ ‬skull cast and a‭ ‬coelophysis‭ ‬skeleton cast share the first room with eight of his illustrations.

How do they compare to us‭?‬ The fossils seem to be asking.‭

Well,‭ ‬those dinosaurs seem to be having more fun,‭ ‬for one.‭ ‬They come in all colors.‭ ‬They listen and move slowly and even cry.‭ ‬

Archway Scene:‭ ‬Waterfall City‭ (‬1992‭); ‬illustration
for‭ ‬Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time,‭ ‬by James Gurney.

Detailed enough to impress,‭ ‬light enough to entertain,‭ ‬Gurney has given the Norton what every museum might want to show,‭ ‬and not just in the summer:‭ ‬a visual lullaby for grown-ups,‭ ‬masked as a children’s attraction.

Dinotopia:‭ ‬The Fantastical Art of James Gurney‭runs through Sept.‭ ‬5‭ ‬at the Norton Museum of Art,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$12‭ ‬adults‭; ‬$5‭ ‬ages‭ ‬13-21‭; ‬free‭ ‬13‭ ‬and under.‭ ‬Hours:‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday through Saturday,‭ ‬1‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday.‭ ‬Also‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬second Thursday of each month.‭ ‬Closed Mondays and holidays.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬832-5196‭ ‬for more information or visit‭ ‬www.norton.org.

Artist James Gurney.

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