My introduction to Patte Loper was a series of pencil drawings of fluffy dogs wrapped in knitting. They were on palm-sized, torn-out scraps of white paper, and some of them were funny, the dogs' faces peeking out as though they were being swallowed: one warm and fuzzy thing falling prey to another. Others felt more like form experiments than animals—dog-bundles kidnapped from their happy little lives and impressed into the service of sculpture.

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Loper's latest show, Let Our Beauty Ease Your Grief at Platform Gallery, invokes, as the title suggests, a quieter and far less absurd realm, a place somehow injured and lightly sedated. Loper once toyed with kittens and kitsch (in work with similarities to Seattle painter Joseph Park's cartoon classicism). She set a gaggle of puffy little dogs in a modernist living room, their fat white heads contrasting with the sleek, knowing black ovals of an Alexander Calder-ish mobile above them. But in this show, she inserts deer and fawns into film stills and photographs from art and architecture magazines, not as elements of domesticated cuteness but as introspective subjects. Her animals have grown lives of their own, and even she seems to understand their motivations only vaguely.

This seems as good a moment as any to point out that there are several shows up in the city right now by female artists dealing with images of animals. In addition to Loper are Claire Cowie at James Harris Gallery, basing her show on the true story of an 18th-century rhinoceros named Clara, and Robyn O'Neil of Houston, whose drawings of men and endangered species are at the Frye Art Museum. There are even Dawn Cerny's dogs and bears at Gallery4Culture and miniature deer heads (see Blart) by Jessica Grilihas at Faire Gallery. The phenomenon is probably best understood as a coincidence, but the three leading ladies beg for comparison.

All three are working masterfully, leaving marks of technical accomplishment: Loper in drawing and painting, Cowie in her signature gloppy foam-acrylic medium-gesso sculpture and watercolor, and O'Neil in pencil drawing. Yet they impart a sense of impermanence, for instance using delicate paper instead of canvas. Loper's scenes, whether vibrantly painted or precisely drawn in pencil, have hazy edges like cinematic dream sequences, an effect Loper thinks of, intriguingly, as "speculative," like a sketch, not fixed, but full of potential. Likewise, the action in them is deeply implausible, more imagined than proposed. In Architecture Review 1978 (After the Shoot), a deer has crashed through the glass wall of a modernist home (reproduced from a magazine) and stands before the fireplace. It faces an abstract formation that has materialized in midair, looking like one of Kenneth Snelson's sculptures made of connected metal bars, and it may be the reason the animal entered the house. Loper provokes a consideration of what the animal might see in the sculpture. Whatever we might theorize in response, the animal and the sculpture are joined in mystery.

The art and the animals are even more sympathetic to each other in Loper's drawings based on a spread of installations-in-progress by the minimalists Robert Morris and Alan Saret from a 1970 issue of Artforum. Fawns cavort in bursts of steam and lounge in haphazard arrays of wood planks and concrete pilings. (It is a sly commentary on the presumed formality of different art mediums that the deer are young in the drawings and grown up in the paintings.)

Animals are mute, foreign creatures, a void into which all kinds of fears and fantasies flow, which Cowie takes as a starting point for her show, About Strange Lands. In it are turtles, meerkats, and a rhinoceros, or her versions of those. Where Loper inserts animals into environments, Cowie inserts environments into animals. On the humps of Cowie's drippy, sculpted rhinoceros sit little (unpeopled) communities of houses; along the torso of her larger-than-human meerkat, she builds fences enclosing jewel-like pools of paint and brushed on the occasional brick wall in lighter-than-air watercolor.

Unlike Loper's off-kilter realism (Robert Altman's Short Cuts, comes to mind), Cowie's animals only look vaguely the way they're supposed to. The artist's exaggerations reference all sorts of half-baked perceptions, but especially the ones that must have greeted Clara, the real-life rhinoceros who was a traveling star for 17 years in the 1700s. She was raised by a Dutch sea captain and toured Europe, impressing crowds who'd never seen a rhino before, except maybe in the best-selling bestiary books dating back to the Middle Ages that depicted animals in moralistic bible stories. Is it too remote to wonder whether Clara is a stand-in for the artist, Claire, and art in general? Again, art and the animal come together in a darkened wood, in a certain kind of half-light. A rhino is not a rhino, but a Rhinoscape.

Where Cowie unites animals and humans, O'Neil separates them. Cowie spins a sea of brick ruins from the shell of a clawed turtle, and sets two trees sideways, their heads locked in conversation. Take a close look at her installation as a whole, and you'll see several conversations between human-made forms and animal patterns. In O'Neil's Bosch-like pencil drawings, all connection has been severed between the humans and the beasts, and it doesn't look good for people. Her packs of generic, anonymous men in sweatsuits and Adidas and Nike sneakers are drawn awkwardly, but her animals and trees are rendered in gorgeous, warm detail. The guys are sketchy, morally and visually. They may appear in cold, snowy lands—everything in O'Neil's work is black and white, and freezing—but they are utterly out of place. They have no homes or shelters. They face certain extinction, thanks to a total lack of women. O'Neil says she'll probably kill them off in her next show, not out of cruelty, but because to her they have always seemed doomed. "They're just not gonna survive," she said in a gallery walk-through.

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They try nonetheless to form a community, to beat the odds in this wilderness. They perform rituals, do yoga, hug, and talk. But just as often, they stare vacantly, or vomit, or fight and kill each other (hooded men being tortured reference Abu Ghraib). They are, simply, lost, and they don't know it.

These are enormous works—some measure 13 feet long and 8 feet tall, and O'Neil has to lie on the ground to draw the lowest parts because her studio is not tall enough to raise them up very high. The drawings are arranged in panels, like altarpieces, and given poetic, vaguely biblical titles. If Loper and Cowie use animals to take apart visions of the real, O'Neil builds contemporary environmental allegories where animals are like sensitive immortals who have given up on the human race. However inscrutable animals may be, humans manage to be more perplexing.

jgraves@thestranger.com