Well, whaddya know -- just when we thought there would be no hurricanes this year, all hell breaks loose. But this storm was more political than meteorological, and unlike nature's cataclysms, political storms create as many winners as losers. Still, I wondered if I had missed any art world clues leading up to this. After all, in the months before Katrina, there had been many alarming signs, painterly hints of apocalyptic weather lurking ominously on the horizon. Since art shows are scheduled months or years in advance, precluding the possibility of hindsight, I set out to see if there had been any aesthetic political premonitions lurking in our midst.
The results, while sometimes tantalizing, appear inconclusive. Certainly Arnold Mesches' colorful It's a Circus expo at the Ogden was aptly timed. While ostensibly depicting surreal circus scenes, these realistic yet surreal canvases leave no doubt that the clowns in question occupy some of the highest offices in the land. It's a Circus #3 depicts a stressed and slightly jaundiced-looking Uncle Sam straddling a parti-colored portal marked "Exit"; as ferocious lions and dragons menace his flanks. Warhorses leap across the flames behind him with multiple Old Glories fluttering above, but it's not a very hopeful sight. Uncle Sam needs to hurry back home, but there's too much fanfare to just quietly slip away. Other images evoke histrionic excess in global politics, and while strictly metaphoric, it's all very cutting. So much so that the effect is more propagandistic than oracular, falling somewhere between John Heartfield's agitprop montages and Tom Nast's biting 19th century political cartoons. Strong stuff, in other words, from an artist with a long history of being investigated by the FBI (but that is a long story).
It's been said that the last election saw the elevation of a lot of ordinary folks into the hallowed halls of government in Washington. Senator-elect Jon Tester of Montana, a farmer and regular guy with a flattop haircut, epitomizes that sort of grass-roots persona, and I wondered if there were any parallels in the local art world. Well, yes -- Thor Carlson, in his artist statement, says his Working Man's Blues show was inspired by his parents' Minnesota farm, a place that instilled his fascination with metals and machines. That much is evident in works such as a stylized Barn crafted from steel and stretched into a kind of tower. But his most poetic pieces are box-like constructions such as Family Portrait, an arrangement of some metal machine forms, an old-style monkey wrench and a casting of an ear of corn, all in muted finishes that resonate with the wood of the enclosure. A metal fabricator who has worked with local sculptress Lin Emery, Carlson, in this show, explores high art's blue-collar connections.
More metal handiwork appears in John Greco's copper anatomical concoctions at Barrister's. Ambivalent is copper bas-relief of a head in profile with major muscles incised in the flat copper surface. The arteries and veins, meandering like rivulets, appear as a sinuous metal overlay in a piece that suggests an esoteric alchemical teaching tool from the time of Paracelsus. One Way is similarly anatomical, a copper arm with an emphatically pointing hand, but Flutter is a copper abdomen cut away at the center to display a bevy of butterflies. Greco's dark copper finishes almost read like wood, but Ryan Burns' nearby paper rubbings taken from cross-sections of big trees read more like abstract prints at first glance. Their detached aura, however, is deceptive. The trees themselves appear to have been old growth giants, and a glance at captions like ";Western Hemlock, estimated age, 373 years, Lin County, Oregon,"; can be a devastating experience, recalling the forensic reports of victims of sudden violence. Visually rugged yet quietly eloquent, they make the case that the slaughter of these great grandfathers of the forest is tragic and senseless. Hopefully, the newly elected Congress will be more sympathetic to their cause.
Working Man's Blues: Metal Sculpture by Thor Carlson
D.O.C.S. Gallery, 709 Camp St., 524-3936; www.docsgallery.com
Dendric Dialogues: Conceptual Environmental Art by Ryan Burns
Anatomic: New Work in Copper by John Greco Barrister's Gallery, 1724 O.C. Haley Blvd., 525-2767;www.barristersgallery.com