Our Own Little Orbit: On Gifs and Painting
by John Bell

I think of myself as a naturalist painter, and I spend a lot of time thinking about animals as subjects in painting and photography. Lately, I can’t get enough of GIFs of animals, though. One of my favorite places to find these is the tumblr Head Like an Orange. Marinus, the blog’s proprietor, makes animated GIFs of animals and landscapes from nature shows. It took me a few days of looking at all of those GIFs to figure out what it was that was so compelling to me in these. Eventually I realized that animals in particular are best suited as subjects in this new media. The simplest way I can describe it is that I realized that, when edited in just the right way, an animated GIF is a photograph that breathes.

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Phillip Guston | Full Brush | 1966 | Ink on paper

Time is of paramount concern in painting. I normally feel that I like a painting long before I know I like it, because paintings are experienced both instantaneously and sequentially. The image is frozen, but our eyes aren’t. Images have rhythm and pacing: they can pull our eyes in one way and push them another. I decided some time ago that the best animal paintings (or for that matter, the best paintings) are the ones that make use of this peculiar relationship with time. These paintings loop in on themselves, crossing in and out of themselves. The best animal paintings are the ones that depict their subjects as two things at once, like Mona Lisa’s smile.

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Francis Bacon | Study for a Bullfight #2 | 1990 | lithograph

It took me a while to think about animal paintings this way, though. At first, I was interested in the violence of the meeting of vitality and stillness. There is no better place to see this than in the watercolor birds of John James Audubon. Initially I found it incongruous that Audubon was kind of an asshole, to people on occasion but to his subjects especially. But the more I came to understand his paintings, the more this made sense. After all, the first step in Audubon’s “studio process” was tracking down and shooting his subject. Next, he would nail the bird to a piece of wood that had been gridded out, in order to give himself reference points. Only then he would pick up a brush. Think of that! The end result is gruesome— his subjects are flat to the picture plane, often unnaturally, and are posed engaging in “typical” bird behavior. The violence that facilitates the process ends up defining the finished object.

imageJohn James Audubon | Peregrine Falcon |1821 | watercolor

What I came to realize, though, is that what compelled me the most about these paintings was not their violence or stillness, but that these paintings were too still. That they were too still meant that, in a weird way, these paintings were all about motion. They pace themselves the way that ice crystals form. My eye gets lost in pattern, in exactitude and articulation, before I can make sense of and name the whole. The inability to focus on every part of the animal at once is what makes these animals feel like trapped souls—the sum is greater than the parts.

It’s in this context that the animated GIFs of Head Like an Orange are so compelling. Both Audubon’s painting and these GIFs press on us the belief that 99% of being alive is small, circular movements—as small as the dilation and constriction of our pupils. We are all of us, wallaby, dandelion, or human, continuously engaged in our own little orbit around ourselves. We fidget, we jitter, we chew, we breathe, we blink, we howl. This is the bulk of what we do, and all the things we can think up and define are first filtered through these small, looped actions.