Diablo, Rodeo, Derby, The Thinker, and Silver Lining are among a group of 12 paintings of horses Nancy B. Frank has on display in February at Telluride Arts’ Gallery 81435 in a show entitled “Up Close & Personal.” And because artists tend to depict aspects of themselves in their work – portraits obviously, but landscapes, even abstractions too – Nancy B.’s sensually brushed horses are powerful creatures, beautifully articulated with great attention to detail. Dignity and intelligence shine through their soulful eyes.
The multi-talented Nancy B. is a larger-than-life personality whose larger-than-life equine images don’t just rinse the eye with equine grace and majesty. We are treated to a full bath. So move over George Stubbs. A dark horse is closing in on your lead and really feeling her oats. The path she took to her persistent muses may have been winding, but once this gifted artist hit her stride, Nancy B. was – and remains – unstoppable in the genre.
When she was a girl, Nancy B. did not just love horses, she thought she was a horse.
“My best friend Peggy and I galloped around my dining room table on our hands and knees. We galloped with scarves sticking out of our pants to look like tails.”
The artist – who holds an M.F.A. in photo-printmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a B.F.A. in painting from Ohio Wesleyan University – has lived in Telluride since 1989.
Out of the gate, Nancy B. has worked successfully in a variety of mediums: jewelry, sculptured cakes, painted furniture, faux painting and photography. In fact, her whimsical, over-the-top cakes landed her a feature in The New Yorker’s popular “Talk of the Town” column.
Back then, however, when she painted, Frank’s subject matter was, frankly, all across the metaphorical map: planets, pearls, birds, and bats galore. While decorative and technically proficient, these early works amounted to lots of hustle, no flow.
And despite her childhood passion for equines, fact is Frank had routinely shied away from horses as a suitable subject matter.
The explanation is as simple as it is complex: horse painting has a long and storied history. Just think about the Parthenon frieze; the equestrian portraits of Verrochio and Donatello; the regal equines of Peter Paul Rubens; Degas’s horses at the racetrack; and Picasso’s “Guernica.” And, in the 18th century, the aforementioned Stubbs (1724-1806), the go-to guy when it came to horse images. (To this day, the man is widely considered the best horse painter who ever lived.)
Nancy B. knew that history and had swallowed the standard rap on horse and “sporting” art in general: holier-than-thou critics, even other painters, have historically looked down on animaliers, those who painted only animals: they were minor artists who produced work for the amusement of the leisure class only. That was true even in the 18th century, the Age of the Horse.
“So many people like me love the power and grace of a horse, but for years I felt trying to capture that majesty on canvas was such a cliché.”
Those feelings changed when Nancy B. began doing equestrian travel to different countries and cultures. Because of digital photography, she was able to paint from her original color photographs. Nancy B. found herself painting horses from the strength of her photographer’s eye – and the heart of a person who loves them.
Nancy B. never liked empty spaces on canvas, so she photographed her horses to fill the screen and, subsequently, the picture plane, with haunches and heads, manes and tails, glossy coats, bits, and reins in extreme close-up.
And in doing what she does in the unique way she does it, Nancy B. reigns supreme: her horse images are fraught with the dynamic tension embodied by these powerful, proud creatures, bound up with tack, yes, but only superficially submissive. Inside – and just like the artist herself – they will always remain unbridled.
As the show at Gallery 81435 proves, Nancy B.’s horses mark the moment the artist came into her power, the result of finding her natural subject and creating work that is very very good – and honoring that fact of her life.
Nowadays, when it comes to painting horses, Frank owns the finish line.
“My horse paintings mark the first time in my life as an artist that I managed to marry my love of color with a subject I know and love. When I paint horses, I am out of my head, working from my heart. There is good reason that ‘art’ is embedded in ‘heart.’”
All that said, in addition to her signature horse images and over the same period of time she created them, Nancy B. has been riding a parallel track, creating abstractions based on, again, an up close and personal view of the architecture of the places she visited and loved. Horses, abstractions really boil down to a singular passion: no matter the subject, for the former printmaker, Nancy B., it all comes down to color and texture which fills the surfaces of her images – paintings and photographs – north, south, east and west. To prove the point, first look at her horse paintings, then squint:
The truth of Nancy B.’s close cropped style will out.