LONDON — To enter Paula Rego’s paintings is to step into a tumbling, chaotic world of animals living out modern human life. Around the world, animal folktales offer a way to explore human behavior from an acceptable distance. In Rego’s “Central Park” (1984), an orange hippo bares its teeth at the center of a cacophonous composition, while another orange creature — a dog-like animal in a top hat and Oxfords — looks on disapprovingly. Meanwhile, in the bottom right corner, a feminine figure in what looks like a red dress appears to be stabbing a bear in the heart while a duck pours liquid into the bear’s mouth. 

“Central Park” is one of about a dozen paintings in Letting Loose, on view at Victoria Miro Gallery. Towering at seven feet and higher, these works invite viewers to stand and absorb the worlds Rego has built. On my visit, many viewers did exactly that, coming up close to the paintings to see the rich details of her brushstrokes, which seem to fly across the canvas in bright colors amid strong black lines.

“The 1980s drew in an era of ‘anything goes,’ of excess and liberation, of letting loose. This new-found freedom set off an explosion in the studio,” writes Nick Willing, the artist’s son, in a commentary that accompanies the exhibition. “Animals appeared, scheming, smoking, cheating, fighting, crowding large canvases, acting out her fantasies with humour and malice.”

Paula Rego, “Corrida (Race),” detail (1983), acrylic on paper on canvas, 96 x 80 3/4 inches

In “Corrida (Race)” (1983), Rego paints a largely monochrome scene of humans in the foreground riding on various animals, like a rat, rabbit, and monkey. One figure holds a leash wrapped around a chicken’s neck, and another tugs at the rabbit’s ears. In the background, a monkey rides atop a human, a dog glares at one human pushing another one, and a cat-like creature in shorts seems to be chomping at crickets embarking on their own race. A similar scene plays out in “Marathon (Running II)” (1983), a more colorful rendition whose central figures include a woman in a blue dress atop a green macaw apparently catching up with a woman in a pink dress on a red ostrich.

As Willing noted in his commentary, this body of work from Rego reflects the exuberance in entertainment and fashion of the 1980s in Western life. The era gave us big hair, moonwalks, and massive shoulder pads. While these paintings are clearly snapshots of that decade’s famous excess, their grotesquery also seems to capture its tumult, like the rise of global capitalism alongside the raw competition of the late stages of the Cold War and its proxy wars.

After seeing the other works I lingered a little longer in front of “The Musicians — Cat and Guinea Pig” (1981). While lacking the visual cacophony of the paintings depicting races, this scene feels no less topsy-turvy. A green cat playing a flute and black and white guinea pig playing a violin march to the music. The cat’s foot looks like it’s red with blood and its left paw reaches out into its marching mate’s personal space. We don’t see what happens next, but we can anticipate — perhaps they’ll start climbing on top of each other, as in “Corrida,” or growl angrily like the animals in “Central Park.” In Rego’s world, peace is just a step away from chaos.

Paula Rego, “The Musicians — Cat and Guinea Pig” (1981), acrylic on paper on canvas, 107 1/8 x 80 1/2 inches
Paula Rego, “Aida II” (1983), acrylic on paper on canvas, 59 7/8 x 48 inches
Paula Rego, “Marathon (Running II),” detail (1983), acrylic on paper on canvas, 94 1/2 x 80 1/8 inches
Paula Rego, “Falstaff” (1983), acrylic on paper on canvas, 96 1/2 x 79 7/8 inches
Paula Rego, “The Drowned Bear AKA In and Out of the Sea” (1985), acrylic on canvas, 96 x 73 1/4 inches
Paula Rego, “Butterfly Escapes Lion and Dog” (1981), acrylic on paper, 27 x 39 3/4 inches
Paula Rego, “The Vivian Girls in Tunisia” (1984), acrylic on canvas, 98 3/8 x 71 1/4 inches

Paula Rego: Letting Loose continues at Victoria Miro Gallery (16 Wharf Road, London, England) through November 11. The show was organized by the gallery.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

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