NEW HAVEN — Nicola Hicks knows defeat. She's intimate with ignominy. You know just by looking at the life-size donkey she sculpted out of plaster and straw and decided to call "Who was I kidding?"
This donkey is currently on view in the almost transcendently lovely fourth-floor galleries at the Yale Center for British Art. This in itself is worth noting: Hicks is British, and perfectly convincing in the company she keeps here. But in every other way, her roughly constructed work seems pointedly out of place, like a bag lady in a gentleman's club.
Hicks's donkey is adapted from Aesop's fable. It is the donkey who has found the hunter's lion skin in the forest, donned it as a disguise, and gleefully terrorized his forest comrades, only to give himself away with a euphoric bray.
Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Oh, donkey!
Hicks shows us the forlorn and dismal creature in the immediate aftermath of this moment of spectacular self-sabotage. The lion's skin, with its heavy head, has started its shameful slide off the donkey's back. The donkey's head is bowed, its ludicrous ears are pinned back.
The shame of it all is redoubled by the abject materials Hicks has used: not official bronze, not even pedigreed clay — just plaster and straw. The creature seems to have been ushered into existence in the same way that a binge-drinker stumbles into the day.
"Who was I kidding?" is a wonderful sculpture. It's also the question of questions: Ask it, then marvel at all the risible behaviors — suitably arrayed in jester's tights and dunce caps — that slither out of one's dark past in response!
This is part of Hicks's purpose. In introducing us to her poor, ashamed donkey, Hicks has also, one feels, introduced herself. What artist, after all, has not felt the fear of exposure, the embarrassment of being revealed — by an uncensored bray, an overcooked artist's statement, a failed attempt at virtuosity — as an imposter, a fraud?
What's more, by letting her work be shown in so splendid a setting, hasn't Hicks tempted fate? Isn't she in danger of feeling the lion skin slide off her own back?
Presumably. Except that in the end, her work is too good, and too universal. We can all, as they say, relate. (I, for one, can't think of a more perfect embodiment of the critic's condition than this lion revealed as a donkey.)
Hicks's sculptures don't try to outwit us with ironies. Her work is trusting, ingenuous. It speaks directly, and every phrase is fired with passion. She is interested, above all, in the overlapping lives of animals and humans: the way humans identify with animals, the way they resemble them, and vice versa.
The show comprises just a handful of sculptures, each one informed by mythology and what Hicks likes to call simply "stories." They all reward close attention.
"There's a part of me which is profoundly jealous of a beast that has fur [and] pointed ears," she said in a recent interview conducted by the museum's Lars Kokkonen. "It's really, really hard to put it into words. But just imagine the joy of being a dog with a tail to wag running through a field of wet grass. . . . Imagine having a mane! Imagine having four legs you could run with!"
This kind of imagining is precisely what makes Hicks's work so convincing. She may lack a couple of legs, but she has dexterous arms, and strong feelings, which she runs with in her art.
Look at her other masterpiece here, a big standing bear, this one cast in bronze. In its combination of gaucheness (those feebly dangling paws) and sheer ursine authority (an upright bear!), it convinces utterly.
Hicks's work puts her in a great British tradition of animal art. And so it's wonderful that it appears here alongside a selection of animal images from the gallery's permanent collection, chosen by the artist. The bear, for instance, makes a perfect pendant to a 1772 portrait by Tilly Kettle of the Nawab of Oudh. Both, says the artist, are "noble and proud, yet dented by life."
Look out, too, for a small, early-19th-century painting of a fox by Jacques-Laurent Agasse — it's a study in intelligent solitude — and William Barraud's mid-19th-century "A Couple of Foxhounds With a Terrier, the Property of Lord Henry Bentinck" — a much more finished, and sentimental, demonstration of the hierarchical sociability of dogs. And then, too, there is George Stubbs's "Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel," as fine a dog portrait as was ever painted in England.
Even without these treats, this small show would have won me over to Nicola Hicks. If her work is missing anything, it is perhaps just a certain animal edge — an alertness, even a paranoia — that is always involved in the carving out of a truly distinct human style. Her feeling for her subjects, her imagination, and her execution are all deeply convincing.
Her forms, however, never quite shed a respect for convention, for propriety and proportion, that is in its own way very English. Has any civilization ever done a better job of incorporating that which is wild, without stooping to tame it entirely?
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.