Elephant's first Contemporary Classic is the marvellously offbeat painting series Bat Opera by British performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.

Bat Opera, 2013

“I am always interested in culture that is thrilling but that is somehow undersold,” Marvin Gaye Chetwynd says of her Bat Opera series of paintings. “Underdogs, stories that could do with celebrating or rehabilitating. Bats fit into this, they are so extraordinary and varied. They pollinate at night, they have radar, they are mammals with wings and, of course, they have the stigma of evil. They are perfect as unworthy subject matter.”

There are so many intriguing aspects of Chetwynd’s paintings, not least, the number of lines that they bridge. Animal paintings are everywhere, and while many are amusing or entertaining, few are truly memorable; many feel like a one-trick-wonder, fun, but cutesy or silly. Chetwynd’s paintings are amusing but also seriously painted. The animals are anthropomorphized to some degree (they are singing opera, after all) but they still have very bat-like movements, and some aren’t joining in at all. The gothic, dark, edginess of the bat, an animal that has a great cultural weight to it, is really played with, but so too is the bat’s fluffy cuteness and modest size. The animal isn’t pigeonholed by the artist’s hand.

Best known as a performance artist, avant-garde Chetwynd has been through many different self-stylings. At one point she was named Spartacus. Her exuberant, inclusive performances, bold, brash and confident, are so different from her long-running Bat Opera series (started over a decade ago and comprised of identically sized and formatted paintings of bats, moody landscapes and the occasional toad), which makes it even more compelling. We see an entirely different side to this characterful artist, and perhaps some vulnerability.

“I am not confident concerning the bats I paint,” she admits. “I am confident when it comes to the performances I make, but for some reason I am shy when it comes to the bat paintings. I am unable to explain why I make them, this makes me scared of sounding stupid. I am articulate and deeply interested in being socially responsible and aware. To then spend dedicated time producing works that I cannot explain makes me feel awkward. I intend to produce paintings that have glamour and urgency in them but that are small and pocket size. I am influenced by miniatures (such as those by Nicholas Hilliard) and the cloud studies of Constable I have studied at the V&A. I desire to make paintings that are as ludicrous as the fantasy art of Boris Vallejo, as passionate as COBRA, but as contained as a seventeenth-century miniature.”

Image © the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London