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Where tigers don't bite

WHERE and when in art does sentiment erode into sentimentality, and genuine creativity descend into self-serving seductiveness? And do all artists understand the distinctions, or must some develop a special warning system to alert them whenever a danger point is about to be reached? No 20th-century American artist has wrestled more openly and courageously with these questions than Darrel Austin, and none has depended as much as he on their resolution. In his roughly 50 years as a painter, the danger of sentimentality and the charge that he seduces his viewers' sympathies with various shrewdly calculated devices have hung over his work like a black cloud.

The main objection has been to the hauntingly romantic, moon-struck world he depicts with its dense, lush forests, fairy-like young women, and exotic leopards, tigers, horses, and bulls. During the time the ``serious'' art world was concerned about Regionalism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, Austin kept right on painting his own highly personal universe. And even today, when his art comes as close as it ever has to resembling what is critically sanctioned, he refuses to make even the smallest adjustment necessary to put him in line for serious consideration.

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Perhaps, having tasted fame once 30 years ago, he has no further use for it. Or -- and this is more likely -- he prefers painting what he loves to receiving whatever pleasures and riches another period of significant success could bring.

His affection for the delicate young women and soulful-eyed creatures of the night that occupy his canvases is obvious and real. And the same is true of his delight in rich, passionate color, thickly textured surfaces, and a style of drawing that is both elegant and discreet.

His sincerity and genuine wish to fully communicate what he feels occasionally get him into trouble, however. At those times, he so badly wants to share his ideas and emotions that he tries a little too hard -- and ends up with pictures that do tug a bit too strongly at the viewer's sensibilities.

It is usually most noticeable in his animals' eyes, which become even bigger, darker, and more provocative than usual, and which look out at the spectator with a brooding intensity that is often quite unsettling. In extreme cases -- and the foreground tiger in ``Beasts Listening'' is a good example -- an animal's expression can be so frankly beseeching as to be mildly embarrassing.

Such excesses, however, occur infrequently. Austin is too much an artist not to be aware of the dangers inherent in undisguised emotionalism, and of the damage so direct an appeal to the viewer's sensibilities can cause to his artistic credibility.

He has generally managed to walk the tightrope between passion and control with admirable restraint. Like so many other good artists with powerful emotional motivations, he has learned how to transpose raw feeling into color, line, texture, formal relationships, and other painterly and structural devices. He has also become particularly effective in orchestrating numerous subtle nuances of tone and hue for maximum pictorial impact, and in choosing and shaping symbols capable of embodying his values and ideals.

Austin, in short, has managed to externalize a very private, tender, and luminous interior reality, and to present mankind with a glimpse of an alternative world devoid of the tensions and cruelties so often found in ours. His animals are jungle beasts, but they live in peace. They are aware of us, but we are not threatened by them. We are, in fact, attracted to their quality of gentle melancholy, and respond positively to their mood of hushed expectancy and brooding watchfulness.

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It is this aura of awareness on their part that first triggers our interest in Austin's art and in its ramifications. His tropical felines are fanciful and somewhat magical, but what they represent is very real and important. Their environment may resemble the Garden of Eden more than the actual forests and jungles of earth, but they themselves are not innocent of the knowledge of evil. If anything, they understand it all too well, and look out at us with the accrued wisdom of the ages.

With few exceptions, we enter an Austin painting through the eyes of his subjects. They speak for the artist. Everything else in his pictures serves to ``frame,'' to direct our attention to, those dark glowing orbs of consciousness. The rich landscape, the molten color, exotic forms, subtly designed compositions, and sensitive draftsmanship set the stage for what Austin most wants to communicate: his deep-seated belief in the need for peaceful coexistence, for harmony, love, and the brotherhood of mankind.

It all boils down to empathy, to our ability to share the artist's beliefs and feelings by engaging in silent ``dialogue'' with his mute, four-legged ``spokesmen.'' Considering the depth of his emotions and the need to inform us of the dangers we face, it is not at all surprising that he occasionally violates the rules of aesthetics and makes his point just a little bit too bluntly.

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