A young Filipino artist's animalistic paintings are both unsettling and mesmerising.
Bree Jonson is soft of speech and gentle in manner, with her milky complexion and waifish appearance making her look even younger than her 23 years. Listening to her muted sentences, punctuated by shy smiles, one gets the impression of a delicate animal, one that may just bolt if you get too close.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving; Jonson’s serene facade conceals a mind that is enamoured with the ferocious side of life, which the Filipino artist depicts with brutal yet beautiful honesty in her first solo exhibition of paintings, Therion Mythos (presented by OUR ArtProjects), in Kuala Lumpur.
Revolving around both domestic and wild animals – “therion” means beast in Greek – the oil paintings are both unsettling and mesmerising. The style is realist, almost classical, with such a strong focus on minute details like pelts and antlers that the animals almost leap out of the canvas. Yet, there is a mythical, almost primal quality to each piece, as the beasts are depicted in the midst of attacking, devouring or destroying each other.
Some are almost true-to-life, such as Leucippus, a large painting in which a pack of dogs rip a doe apart as a buck battles against being strangled by a rearing snake. Others, meanwhile, are more fantastical, like Asphyxia, where a disembodied wolf’s head is coiled tightly in what appear to be entrails, hovering over a country landscape; or Ophiuchus, in which a hissing snake slithers out of a gash in a severed horse’s head.
Jonson’s fascination with and love for animals began at a very young age. She remembers, at around the age of four, of having intense dreams in which she became an animal herself. She shares that she was so affected by these dreams that she walked around on all fours and started eating without utensils!
“My mother did get a little worried at one point!” she laughs. “But she was a vet, so she understood my love for animals. She used to bring home animals, and that spurred on my passion too.”
While always inclined towards art – she shares that she would sketch at every spare moment while growing up – Jonson studied engineering in university to please her parents. When she began her Masters, however, she took an art test, and went on to pursue that instead. While she didn’t finish a formal art course, she did find a mentor, and trained in oils. And here, she found her passion for art and for animals gradually combining.
“I just started painting what I liked. I read a lot of philosophy, particularly about the idea of nothingness and how it affects our lives, and I decided I wanted to use my animals to explore those concepts. I also painted because I don’t see any other paintings like these.”
Animals, Jonson says, show her the truth about human nature. “I really see animals as fables, as a metaphor for humans. Even when I’m reading mythology or philosophy, I can always see them come to life in animals,” she explains.
Therion Mythos is Jonson’s way of depicting the realities of nature at its most primal, unvarnished and stripped of all niceties.
“In modern times, nature is always depicted as calm and beautiful. Animals are usually portrayed as cute, cuddly or majestic. But animals have another side, one in which they have to take care of their own needs. This isn’t any different from humans; we all have a depth that we may not show. I do find animals beautiful, but with a tinge of rabidness, which isn’t a bad thing. They need this to survive, and so do we,” she says.
> "Therion Mythos" is on till May 25 at Lot 55, Art Row, Publika, Kuala Lumpur. Viewing hours are Tuesday to Sunday, noon-6pm. For more info, www.ourartprojects.com.