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Almost Happy

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 11/5/2003

Almost Happy

Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery through Dec. 19

More names are dropped in Almost Happy than at an alumni mixer. But while the artists in this group show seem to be all about referencing, it's not always clear who they're trying to dazzle: us or each other.

Kevin Labadie, in a piece called "The Gray Targets," posts a dozen wooden discs swirled with oil and wax, riffing on the Op Art of Kenneth Noland and the targets of Jasper Johns. Christine Buckton Tillman, in spreading some tchotchkes over a pair of overhead projectors, apes the black-and-white photograms of Man Ray. And the digital prints of Sharon Edwards-Russell place the family dog in various poetic settings (this one goes out to you, William Wegman), which in turn are mounted on Japanese-style fabric scrolls and captioned with Zenny aphorisms, a kind of referential double-dip.

There's more to the work than this--Labadie in particular gives real pause with his mechanical installation "Themorus"--but most of the footnoting going on here seems like trifling fun rather than pomo theorizing. And this, in a way, is to the artists' credit.

But Happy's highlights come from the two artists whose derivations seem intuitive rather than contrived, the results of a natural process instead of a desired effect. The work of Neal Koger, for instance, usually can just be found in the gift shop of the American Visionary Art Museum, but his terrorizing dolls made from found objects are some of the most articulate offerings here. Their exemplar is a fiend named "Ship Wreck," a foot-tall monster of stuffed denim with four arms--two made of garden claws, two of crescent wrenches--his ankles wrapped in chrome chain, his head bound in black nylon and crowned with black metal horns; from his spine protrudes a small steel T-square, on which sits another denim beast, with nails splintering out of its sides, perched as if waiting to be slung off of this ersatz launch pad into enemy territory. In its hand-hewn menace, it borrows from Pueblo Indian clown figures and Navajo kachina dolls as much as kids' action figures, and there's more than a trace of commentary, too: On "Ship Wreck"'s behemoth breast is stitched a red, white, and blue crest, emblazoned with the label "America."

This is naive brightness rather than clever quipping, and Koger's grasp of it is topped only by that of artist Albert Schweitzer. In the curatorial essay, Schweitzer cites the art brut of Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel as his influences, but this work comes from someplace deeper than the page of an art book. His mixed-media painting "Chain Reaction" (pictured in detail), for instance, takes the shape of a Mexican religious retablo; in its center, red, green, and purple figures stand flailing their arms, at once playful and tormented, entreating you with outsized azure eyes. Around them on the wood frame lurk tall demonic specters, black with white faces and lipstick-smeared lips, and a single 3-D folk-art crucifix, painted shit brown with two tiny faces peering out from its top and bottom. Schweitzer's work is shot through with this kind of primal dynamism, and whatever's behind it, the name for it has not yet been dropped.

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Face in the Crowd (5/11/2005)
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Mind Candy (5/4/2005)
Lee Boot Discovers the Source of Happiness and the Meaning of Life

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