Art by celebrities is often risible. But there is nothing unintentionally funny about the technically excellent paintings of Jim Moir, AKA Vic Reeves. Nor is he playing it for laughs. There are no jokes here, just precise, intense portrayals of birds.
Moir, a keen birdwatcher, has clearly spent a lot of time looking at nature, even longer finessing his style. His studies of wrens, finches, water birds, a red kite, a nightingale and more are finely observed, lovingly detailed works of ornithology. The studied objectivity of these avian portraits – nicely capturing the crinkly skin and claws of feet that grasp branches, the softness and structure of feathers and bright hues against the sky – brings back to life the Victorian tradition of meticulous animal art.
Yet as you settle into this quiet art, sucked into the mentality of Moir’s hobby as a birder, surrealism starts to sneak in after all. Blue Tit & Vim – imagine the title being read by Reeves – depicts a little bird perched on top of an empty bleach container. It suddenly tears us from pure nature into an unsightly glimpse of everyday pollution. Yet it’s funny, and it’s pop art, as if the great American bird artist John James Audubon was cross-bred with early Warhol. It’s also a neat embodiment of the classic definition of a surrealist image as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”.
Birds are the favourite 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 surrealistic horror The Birds, these chirpy denizens of the skies have haunted modern art’s dreams. And the more time you spend in Moir’s show, the more uncanny his birds become.
The eyes fix on you. Four portraits of owls glare right back from large flat faces, their glassy, reflective depths brilliantly caught in very convincing watercolour work. You can see the world mirrored in them. What are the owls thinking? An oil painting of a snowy owl is even more intense, its stare taken one step from reality into a dream world of hot colours where it floats mystically.
After being freaked out by the owls, you see eyes everywhere. The exhibition, it becomes evident, is not so much about us looking at birds, as birds looking at us. Behind the veil of his humour, it turns out Moir is not only a romantic but a radical. Intimations of avian consciousness chirrup from his pictures. Downstairs, in a cluttered office where some of his works are more atmospherically displayed (they really would be great in the gothic setting of the Natural History Museum, rather than a white walled gallery) is his painting of a rhino whose horn has changed into an arm that gives humanity the finger.
Moir’s oil paintings are (so far) less authoritative than his watercolours. They’re a bit brash. But this is the exhibition of an artist who is still developing: it’s a brave, modest demonstration of his ongoing self-education. This is why drawing and painting are so beautiful. Whoever you are and whatever your age, you can develop the skills and sensibility to paint from life. Moir, at 63, sets an example.
Beyond the skill, it is the love of nature that glows. You end up feeling stared at by birds who can see all our destructiveness. Reproached for that Vim can.