Artist Jen Wrubleski embraces her animal instincts with 'Low Key Babe'

Andy Downing
Jen Wrubleski and Cat

In researching the subjects for her new art show, “Low Key Babe,” painter Jen Wrubleski said she became something of a walking BuzzFeed listicle, her head filling with trivial tidbits centered on animals in cinema. For instance, did you know that the title role in “Babe” was played by 48 different pigs? Or that the same screenwriter who penned that beloved children’s film (George Miller) is the same man responsible for the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” flicks?

These factoids became the basis for the paintings Wrubleski will have on display at the Gateway Film Center beginning on Friday, Jan. 17, including a portrait of Ferdinand, the nervous duck from “Babe,” reimagined as a “Mad Max”-style renegade; a solemn hamster from “Garden State” standing in for star Zach Braff; and, yes, 48 individual pig heads, each cut from birch and then hand-painted by Wrubleski, who intends to spell out the word BABE on the theater’s wall in porcine letters.

While the exhibit is undeniably playful, there are deeper layers to the approach taken by Wrubleski, who intended to honor the petspians who regularly appear onscreen and frequently go unheralded. In doing so, the artist said she came to realize that the plight of the animal characters often mirrors larger themes present in the film.

“Take Tina [the llama] in ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’” Wrubleski said recently in her Blockfort studio, surrounded by four dozen pig heads in various states of completion. “It was a stagnant, rural town, and Tina just existed to eat. She was just there, and she was kind of angry about being there, and that’s all her character was. Her role maybe didn’t shine as much, but it’s literally the point of the whole movie.”

Andy's favorite animal in film might be the marmot in "The Big Lebowski," which might be linked to the fact he was the kid in high school who owned ferrets, which might be linked to how much time he spent alone, which might be linked to the deep sadness that sometimes grips him like a vice, and, oh, by the way, won't you sign up for our daily newsletter

The subject matter is a natural extension of Wrubleski’s long-held interests as an artist. She cracked that the running joke in her life is that she initially pursued art at age 11 because she liked drawing cats. “And then I spent a lot of money and I went to art school,” said the painter, who graduated from CCAD with a degree in illustration, “to realize that I like drawing cats.”

So of course a cat makes an appearance in “Low Key Babe” in the form of Cat (played by a male marmalade tabby named Orangey, Wrubleski noted, for those interested in more trivia), whom the artist painted in lazy, Garfield-like repose. “Are you familiar with the movie at all? I think it’s a cult favorite of young teenage girls who don’t have direction, because it’s a movie about not having direction,” said the artist, who generally focused on films that meant something to her at some point in her life, even if she’s reasonably sure some of them don't hold up, mentioning “Garden State” and “Napoleon Dynamite” by name.

For this show, owing to a tight deadline and a continual desire to push herself into uncomfortable territory, Wrubleski worked at a faster pace, getting things down on canvas quickly rather than second guessing each brush stroke and rendering the art at a tortoise pace. “If I’m making 48 different pig heads I can’t just noodle around on each one; they have to get done,” she said. “I had to learn to put a stroke impulsively on the canvas and be like, ‘That is right. I’m moving on.’ And I had a lot to learn in that regard, because it’s not my fucking forte. ... To me, that exploration is really important. I think I need for [my art] to feel a little bit like a mystery, a little confusing and a little new for it to be exciting.”

Wrubleski initially toyed with the idea of making a more political statement, since the treatment of animals who have appeared onscreen is historically poor. Ultimately, though, she opted to celebrate the overlooked existence of these screen critters, who will never get marquee billing, no matter how pivotal the role might be.

“I’m also co-owner of a vegan bakery (Pattycake), so I do have an agenda, and if I could make an art show based on cruelty to animals in movies and make it a palpable experience, I certainly would,” Wrubleski said. “But that felt too confrontational to me. What felt more genuine was focusing … on the individual animal. … I think animals deserve to be celebrated as whole beings in movies. They’re not just throwaways.”

Gateway Film Center

6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17

1550 N. High St., Campus

Jen Wrubleski's “Low Key Babe”