Four artists explore fragmentation, all in different ways, at current Fugitive Art Center show

Four artists explore fragmentation, all in different ways, at current Fugitive Art Center show

Works by Tim Dooley, Aaron Wilson, Ed Wilcox & John Donovan

Through June 24

Fugitive Art Center, 440 Houston St. 256-7067

Sometimes an art exhibit is just an art exhibit. The four artists in the current Fugitive Art Center show—John Donovan, Tim Dooley, Aaron Wilson and Ed Wilcox—share a common thread of fragmentation, but their purposes and approach differ widely. Perhaps the main thing to say about the show in total is that none of the pieces seem too uncomfortable displayed in the presence of the others.

John Donovan recently moved to town from New Orleans, and his exhibit consists of variations on a single image, a Chinese good-luck figure—chubby, bald and jolly—rendered in clay and incongruously holding a weapon above his head. The figure appears to be identical in each iteration, although Donovan alternates several glaze styles. What does change is the weapon, which differs each time and runs from prehistory (sticks) to modernity (tanks) to mythology (a lightning bolt). The army of little figures reminded me of a Chinatown gift shop filled with copies of the same mass-produced figure. Never repeating the same weapon twice, Donovan calls out how much creativity we apply to finding ways to kill each other. The soul-numbing repetition of mass production provides a ground that supports creativity in the means of destruction.

Tim Dooley and Aaron Wilson both teach at the University of Northern Iowa and live in Cedar Falls. While they collaborate sometimes, this exhibit presents them independently but adjacently. Wilson works with the raw material of Middle American visual _expression—the script of car customizing and T-shirt screening, taxidermy and pictures of wildlife, bumper sticker slogans. He uses the wrong combinations, colors and materials to rip these elements out of context and unloose their subtexts. The centerpiece of his work in the show is a large installation, "Parlor." Aggressive "wallpaper" of lime-green and grape vertical stripes sets off the space. The room has been furnished with pictures and framed words and phrases, a clothes rack hung with kids' T-shirts, and a bench. Everything is off: The pictures have elaborate frames in a uniform gray, where you would expect maybe a gold leaf effect. The mounted caribou head is painted red. Two signs reading "FEAR" and "THIS" are in a flat, dusty shade of rose; not only is the color wrong for the slogan, but "FEAR THIS" goes on the back of your pickup, not inside your parlor. Although the T-shirts look fine, several of them have slogans too adult for the shirt size, like "BROS BEFORE HOS." The dowels in the back of the bench are shaped like guns and bayonets. These items could fit in a Middle American household, but not this way.

Of course, we get clues. One painting says "Hello Archetype," the words arrayed around a mouth with fangs inserted on the surface, and a Wal-Mart bag hangs from canine jaws protruding from another painting. Wilson has drawn out archetypal elements from the visual culture of working-class Middle America, much of which comes from retailers like Wal-Mart. This material is not the unmediated _expression of a social stratum, but results from a complicated interplay between demand, _expression, suggestion and sales. A great deal of this culture involves making commonplace a degree of menace and violence, aggressive psychic material that gets packaged into a more or less controlled domestic environment. By putting stuff in the wrong places and painting it the wrong colors, Wilson shows the rough raw material that hides in plain sight.

Where Wilson feeds off the visual language of Middle America, Dooley uses a language of fragments and abstractions that brings to mind the flatness and colors of Japanese popular graphics. Dooley's central piece is also an installation, "Mixed Product," which includes 10 panels painted in bright colors. The panels vary widely in size, and two of them lean against the wall rather than hang from it. A consistent color palette crosses the canvases, but the images and shapes are fragments: an indeterminate bursting shape or aperture, partial silhouettes, cartoonish hands with cutout holes in the center of each palm. A curtain of translucent plastic ribbons covers one panel, and several quarter-inch cables in pink, yellow and blue connect to holes in the panels and boxes on the floor or wall, which are covered with fuzzy cloth and plastic baby bottle nipples.

This piece embodies fragmentation on many levels. The inconsistent content and size of the paintings make it hard to extrapolate an underlying form. Many of the individual images are fragments or missing something, like the cutout holes. The fragmentation extends to the medium itself: Traditionally, paintings reside in two dimensions on the plane of the wall, but Dooley breaks up that plane by leaning two panels and covering one with the plastic curtain, and then adds the cables and fuzzy boxes, objects other than paintings that move out into the floor space. Maybe we can call this an installation, but much of the work still consists of two-dimensional pieces hung on the wall. If it's not a painting, it certainly refers to painting and two-dimensional representation.

Dooley's other works include prints that place indeterminate biomorphic forms in a depthless space, where he achieves unnatural effects of space and force. In "Where Is My Mind? Or Fixing a Hole," black lines indicate an object flying into the screen from the right, where it hits another object and seems to force a white glob to splatter out from an opening in its underside. At the same time, the spray of the white glob also seems to function as a claw and grabs a pink mass out of a blue figure below. The white element is both falling and pulling up at the same time. This print is a virtuoso violation of graphic signals indicating force and motion in the world of cartoons.

Dooley and Wilson both seem engaged in a fairly clinical project—exploring the possibilities for displacement through visual techniques. Ed Wilcox takes a more earnest approach. His work is based on psychedelic drawings of mythological and religious figures, opera characters and characters of his own creation, which he hand-colors and mounts in groups. Wilcox is best known as a musician in the Temple of Bon Matin and Arthur Doyle's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. His performances can be a kind of inspired madness, combining elements of storytelling and dance with percussion-based sound-making. This kind of music-making is incredibly intuitive and succeeds largely based on the performer's capacity to access some sort of universal current. The work in this show seems intended to tap a similar primeval energy.

Several of the pieces involve four drawings cut into three sections and then glued to the sides of three wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. The boxes turn on a vertical axle, allowing the viewer to make new combinations of the head, midsection and feet of the characters. One box depicts four voodoo loas, another shows four manifestations of the male force in nature: Pan, Jack in the Green, Caliban and Cernunnos. Turning the boxes mixes the characters, modeling the way these characters are at root variations on the same idea, all of them personifying similar psychic forces.

Wilcox takes this pursuit of the universal characterization of psychic life in an unusual direction by including a series of characters from operas. Drawn in a style that recalls Cocteau at times, he works these characters from Western high art into the context of myth. Wilcox deserves credit for taking a mystic and psychedelic worldview beyond non-Western and pre-Christian sources to identify similar forces embedded in the Western canon.

Wilcox works in the DIY world where music, art and poetry converge and merge, often at the hands of multitalented people working well outside art institutions. He draws skillfully, but uses crude methods—photocopies, hand-coloring and gluing paper onto surfaces. These are not painstakingly wrought pieces aspiring to entry into a museum gallery. The same is true of the music made by bands like the Temple of Bon Matin in contrast to output from university composers or highly produced pop records: It has much more immediacy. A show like this raises the question whether a similar divergence of vitality exists in the visual arts as well.

The Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati (housed in a newly opened building designed by Zaha Hadid) currently has a show called "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture." Much of the work comes from cross-medium types who play punk rock and create photocopied zines as well as making visual art. This show makes a strong case for the dynamism and significance of the work produced from these sections of the art world, and Wilcox would fit well among the visionaries here.


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