If these long faces could talk

Les Linaman’s horse paintings represent a return to equine mystique

Photo by David Robert

More than 17,000 years ago, artists in the caves at Lascaux, France, joined a tradition of representing horses through painting (the first horse paintings showed up approximately 35,000 years ago). They weren’t the last, though, artists throughout the years have incorporated these animals into their work. There are countless images of leaders, politicians, religious figures and generals atop these sturdy beasts. Horses have been painted in connection with everything from transport vehicles to weapons to tools and even as trusty friends. Frederic Remington’s depictions of men on horseback, riding at full speed or violently bucking into frame, played an undeniable role in shaping the way the mythical American West was imagined.

But before the photographic image, artists were left to imagine and create the intricate positions of a horse in motion, so it was rare to see paintings of the animals in stride. The horse, as a result, managed to retain a certain mystique that would evade any artist’s faithful rendition. In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge made a sequence of photographs demonstrating the moment at which all four hooves leave the ground when a horse is running. When photographs proved what was previously thought impossible, horse’s movements were then studied scientifically. But as man added yet another truth to his expanding canon of knowledge, the horse undoubtedly lost some of its mystery.

Enter Les Linaman, a local addition to this great tradition of horse painting. In his “Horse Speak, Series II,” approximately 25 images of horses hang from the walls of La Bussola, a pleasant little gallery in downtown Reno.

Linaman paints the animals from a number of perspectives with oils and pastels, using a full palette of color. The settings are natural, but Linaman never resorts to ready-made natural colors such as brown or grey. Instead, these colors are achieved as he haphazardly layers swatches of blue, yellow and red to create a jagged array of colors, blending the background with the foreground, and the horse with its environment. The result is a pleasant contradiction: natural light falls softly across a horse’s hide, but the animal retains a ceaseless and kinetic energy. Although many of the horses are stationary, grazing or staring solemnly back at the viewer, they appear ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.

But it is in the closer, cropped portraits where Linaman is most effective. The portraits, which seem the central focus of the show, differ greatly from the distanced, active paintings. While the latter relies primarily on brushstrokes and technique to convey feeling, the portraiture invokes an uneasy calm that piques the interest in a much more intriguing way.

The funny thing is, Linaman’s horses actually look like they are thinking, as if they were on to something the viewer is unaware of. It is difficult to put a finger on what exactly this might be, but one can’t help notice a sly, almost knowing smile spread across the long faces of these animals. Others nurse a smug, even comical expression. Here, the feeling is ambiguous, intimate and personally engaging as one might expect to see in a portrait of a human subject.

At close range, where Linaman seems most comfortable, I found myself unsettled and curious. Just what on earth are those horses thinking about? What secrets do they hold? What are they not telling us? Perhaps in reality they have managed to maintain some of the elusive mystique of a previous era.