What’s in the galleries this Derby season? A horse, of course

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, if “a horse is a horse is a horse,” wouldn’t all those visual interpretations of the animal be repetitive?

But after visiting the various Derby-related art exhibitions around Louisville, I quickly realized there is no definitive horse image — nor should there be.

If you favor horses painted realistically, the show to see is “Equine Paintings” at the Gallery at The Brown Hotel. Jaime Corum is one of a handful of young, highly skilled artists whose work resembles photorealism, but without the coldness that style usually projects. On the contrary, her work fully possesses the spirit of the animal and contains clues to the secrets an insider can glean from years of being around horses.

The huge oil on canvas “Got Mares?” qualifies as a quintessential grand horse painting. Here, Corum’s fascination with light is evident, from the shiny coat to the glistening trees in the background, and displays the horse in all of her graceful majesty.

Corum’s work also figures in the Pigment Gallery’s “The Horse.” This group exhibition has as many variations of horses as, well, there are horses. Pam Ludke’s oil painting “By a Nose II” is a fauve horse, with colors — bright red, orange and blue — not natural to the animal. Jeaneen Barnhart, another favorite local horse artist, departs from her usual representational style in “Glorious Ride,” which gives us a splash of subdued, abstract color of oil on canvas. Katie Burke’s superb ink-on-paper “Stallions” is abstract to the point of resembling calligraphy or an Oriental pen-and-ink drawing.

A small group of race scenes by studio partners Lynn Dunbar and Catherine Bryant are displayed at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Dunbar has a few of the standard jockeys on horses, but shines with her genre work that features the human hum that surrounds the actual races. It is, indeed, all about the hats.
Bryant focuses on the minute details of horse and rider, resulting in a marvelous alternate way to interpret horseracing. Her 8-inch square oil close-up images are similar in scale to the area the eyes scan, such as a boot in the stirrup or the intense look of concentration on a jockey’s face.

The 21c Museum Hotel is playing host to a different type of exhibition. Here, the auction house, Christie’s, is previewing a portion of its next sporting art sale this Derby season. The paintings, in the traditional Old World style, are superbly rendered in great detail. They are animal portraits or moments recorded for history, complete with bragging rights. A few of the highlights are the oil on canvas: “The Duke of Bedford’s Grey Diomed Beating H.R.H., The Prince of Wales’s Traveler Over the Beacon Course,” painted in 1790 by John Nost Sartorius; and five works by John Frederick Herring, including the oil on panel “The Earl of Chesterfield’s Bay Colt Don John in a Stable” from 1838. Jaime Corum’s style of paintings and drawings mirrors this tradition.
The paintings from Christie’s return to London on May 18 for auction, but the Christie representatives can arrange absentee bidding if you see something you like.

Ominous postscript: The Bluegrass area of central Kentucky, home to many horse farms and Derby winners, has been added to the World Monuments Fund’s “100 Most Endangered Sites” list. The fund’s mission is to assist in the preservation of threatened cultural sites, and it seems poorly planned over-development has infringed on the 11-county area, with about 300 square kilometers of land lost during 1997-2002. “The Vanishing Bluegrass” show, currently at the Kentucky Derby Museum and containing fine art photographs and topographical maps, was designed to further sound the alarm.

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