Art by celebrities is often laughable. But there’s nothing unintentionally funny about the technically excellent paintings of Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves. He doesn’t play it for laughs either. There are no jokes here, just precise, intense portraits of birds.
An avid birdwatcher, Moir has clearly spent a lot of time looking at nature and even more refining his style. His studies of wrens, finches, waterfowl, a red kite, a nightingale and more are finely observed, lovingly detailed works of ornithology. The studied objectivity of these bird portraits – beautifully capturing the wrinkled skin and claws of feet gripping branches, the softness and texture of feathers and bright hues against the sky – brings the Victorian tradition of meticulous animal art back to life.
But when you delve into this silent art, sucked into the mentality of Moir’s hobby as a birdwatcher, surrealism does start to creep in. Blue Tit & Vim – imagine the title being read by Reeves – depicts a birdie perched on top of an empty bleach container. It suddenly tears us from pure nature to an ugly glimpse of everyday pollution. Still, it’s funny, and it’s pop art, as if the great American bird artist John James Audubon had crossed with early Warhol. It also beautifully embodies the classic definition of a surreal image as “the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”.
Birds are the favorite creatures of surrealism. From Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, to Max Ernst’s identification with the bird-headed shaman Loplop and his painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, to Alfred Hitchcock’s surreal horror The Birds, these merry dwellers of heaven have chased the dreams of modern art. And the more time you spend in Moir’s show, the creepier his birds get.
The eyes are on you. Four portraits of owls sparkle right back from large flat faces, their glassy, reflective depths captured brilliantly in very convincing watercolor work. You see the world reflected in it. What are the owls thinking? An oil painting of a snowy owl is even more intense, his gaze is taken a step from reality to a dream world of warm colors where the mystical floats.
After being startled by the owls, you see eyes everywhere. It becomes clear that the exhibition is not so much about our bird watching, but about birds watching us. Behind the veil of his humor, Moir turns out to be not only a romantic, but also a radical. Bird consciousness harassment chirps from his photos. Downstairs, in a cluttered office where some of his works are more atmospherically displayed (they would really be great in the Gothic setting of the Natural History Museum, rather than in a white-walled gallery), is his painting of a rhinoceros whose horn has been altered in an arm that gives humanity the finger.
Moir’s oil paintings are (so far) less authoritative than his watercolors. They are a bit cheeky. But this is the exhibition of an artist still in the making: it’s a brave, humble demonstration of his constant self-study. That is why drawing and painting are so beautiful. Whoever you are and whatever your age, you can develop the skills and sense of painting from life. Moir, at 63, gives an example.
Besides the skill, it is the love for nature that glows. You end up feeling stared at by birds that can see all our destructiveness. Accused that Vim can.