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"Strange Worlds/Altered Realities"
at Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, California
Review by DeWitt Cheng

"Strange Worlds/Altered Realities" brings together five artists who hide nothing yet still fire our imaginations.

Continuing through June 30, 2012


Fantasy has always comprised a large part of art history’s portfolio, even when the unrealities it depicted — its heavens and hells — were presented as "gospel truth, eternal verities and severities" (to quote P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster). If contemporary art is more honest about its artificiality and fictiveness, its metamorphoses can be just as stunning: think of Penn and Teller explaining in advance how magic tricks work — and then still blindsiding us silly. “Strange Worlds/Altered Realities” features Linda Mieko Allen, Rachel Davis, Ken Fandell, Karrie Hovey and Stas Orlovski. These are artists who hide nothing up their sleeves, which is to say they are transparent in their use of materials and procedures, and thus anti-illusionistic in the contemporary manner, but still fire our imaginations. Mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived, but nowadays, preferably, without tears and fears.


The three painters combine contemporary ideas about abstraction and process with hints of older traditions. Allen’s three mixed-media “Parallax” paintings on aluminum panel are predominantly abstract, frontally oriented planes of spattered paint crisscrossed by thin horizontal and vertical lines. These function to stabilize and compartmentalize the gestural chaos. They can also be seen as turbulent landscapes observed from lofty perches, calling to mind panoramic battle paintings like Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Battle of Issus" (1529). The combat here is between discordant visual elements (i.e., linear vs. painterly) rather than the massed armies of ancient Greece and Persia. Another interpretation is geological or archaeological, with the surface reading as a cross section that reveals ambiguous half buried and fragmentary artifacts — culverts, pipes, piers, beams, joists — that could have once formed a larger and unified system. Allen’s use of Surrealist decalcomania, the squishing of paint into rivulet/branch patterns, recalls the vision of nature run amok in Max Ernst’s mesmerizing, deliquescent landscapes of the 1940s. These complex, beautiful, playful works reflect today's atmosphere of embattled struggle and even foreboding. 


Davis explores myth and symbol in her lyrical watercolors, which depict motifs drawn from Chinese art — dragons, pagodas, and pillar-like mountains — in symbolic situations or dramas. In “Year of the Dragon,” four kites dance in the sky, this year’s horned, fanged astrological symbol holding pride of place. In “Parallel Universe,” a modern skyscraper of reflective blue glass panes seems to crumple an ancient pagoda; or is the sinuous pagoda actually climbing the sheer glass cliff? In “Nail House,” a ramshackle building sits atop a little mountain between two monolithic office buildings; the title refers to “stubborn nails,” the developers’ term for homeowners who refuse to be dislodged by harassment or surrounding construction. Her “Hua Shan” depicts Mount Hua, the Taoist Western Great Mountain, as a symbol of fecund nature, if no longer the domicile of the gods. 


Orlovski’s three “Head” monoprints combine the Orientalized nature imagery of previous work — waves, vortices, rock, plants, rain and ripples — with the simplified heads that began to appear recently. “Head with Wave,” “Head with Storm” and “Head with Whirlpools” feature white silhouettes of bollard-like heads, the image repositories of, perhaps, nature-struck sages and scholars retired from bureaucratic duties.


Fandell works witty variations on photographic conventions and photocollage in his digitally altered color photographs. In “Horse Eye,” he has cloned the fur of the subject to form a background plane, a pelt or wall from which the eye peers out calmly. What suggests a tangle of fur snagged on barbed wire turns out to be superimposed foliage, shown from below, in “Palm Drawing 6.” The uninterrupted blue sky of “Festiva” is interrupted only at the top, where the roof of a white econobox coupe dangles inexplicably; is the car, a Ford Festiva subcompact, suspended by a junkyard electromagnet prior to flattening, or is the picture simply flipped? One photograph depicts a wooden floor from which a tiny plastic palm tree sprouts.


Hovey subverts and exalts crafts tradition with her process-based work. An installation entitled “. . . the Garden grows: Vine” covers two corner walls of the gallery with vines sporting scores of handmade recycled-paper/plastic flowers. “Titled” is comprised of print publications folded end-to-end into teardrop-section signatures which are joined radially to form cylindrical mini-towers. Arrayed in groups, they resemble tiny cities; displayed with seeming casualness perched on the gallery’s maple hardwood steps, or sidling next to a sofa, they make for surprising encounters, like the walking stick, at the end of the film "Enchanted April," implanted in a Tuscan hillside, sprouting branches.

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