Bainbridge Island Museum of Art’s fine survey of painter Robert McCauley’s work over the last 25 years lets you savor his visual extravagances while tapping into his urgent environmental concerns.

Share story

This fine survey of painter Robert McCauley’s work over the last 25 years lets you savor his visual extravagances while tapping into his urgent environmental concerns. Almost all the work in it is accompanied by a comment from the artist, revealing how the playful appearance of his paintings has serious intent behind it.

Take “Abandoning the Sublime,” his 2015 oil on canvas on panel. It shows half a dozen woodland creatures — a bird, a squirrel, a rabbit, a hummingbird, a frog, a bee — being unceremoniously kicked out of a painting-within-a-painting. There’s something comical about the way they’ve been sent flying. But McCauley’s remarks make clear this is an apocalyptic scenario: “The timber has been clear-cut, the streams run brown with silt, and the sky has a permanent dingy cast.”

Almost all the works in Bainbridge Island Museum of Art’s (BIMA) “Robert McCauley: American Fiction” take a similar turn. They have an immediate eccentric appeal, but also sound alarm bells. Technically masterful in their detail, they’re passionate about registering human threats to the natural world.

Exhibition Review

‘Robert McCauley: American Fiction’

10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Feb. 4. Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-4451 or

McCauley was born in Mount Vernon in 1946. Though he spent much of his adult life as an art professor in Illinois, he returned to his hometown in 2008 and his work, over the decades, has remained steeped in a Pacific Northwest sensibility. From the start he addressed our regional history, including the moments of first contact between European explorers and indigenous populations.

Example: “When Worlds Collide,” one of several works combining tour-de-force painting with installation elements. It places a shelf-full of globes representing “the political power of those who win the wars” in front of a faux-vintage painting of a pre-contact Northwest Coast tribal settlement.

McCauley also draws on personal memories of being out in the wild. The show’s title work is a poignant oil-on-canvas rendering of a photograph his father took after McCauley left home. “He continued, on his own, to leave the beaten path, searching for hidden pools in small streams,” McCauley writes. “I have no idea as to their locations.” The painting’s installation elements — including a plastic vacuum tube filled with “alphabet dice” — hint at myriad possibilities.

McCauley’s recent work shows him at the height of his powers. He’s now playing with color and composition in ways that leave behind his faux-antique-shop-painting style and use of installation elements far behind. These are pure paintings, filled with surreal twists and role reversals.

Some have a sense of humor. “Discovery of Slowness I” depicts a stack of turtles topped by a snail with three darting hummingbirds inspecting this revelatory lack of momentum. “The Vegetarian II” re-creates a painting of an 18th-century chef whose body, thanks to McCauley’s intervention, now serves as “a playground” for creatures (snails, a hare, a turtle) that once were “delicacies on his menu.”

In all his paintings, McCauley’s woodland creatures evince an intelligence that goes well beyond animal instinct. His bears, for instance, don’t just look like bears, but like willing models who posed for him for hours, perhaps exchanging witty banter with him as he painted. They subject the viewer to as much scrutiny as the viewer subjects them to.

“Robert McCauley: American Fiction” is a joint presentation of BIMA and the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner (where it will run March 31-June 10, 2018). By collaborating, the museums were able to afford loans of key McCauley works from private collections across the country. Seeing them together like this is a rare opportunity. Don’t miss it.