oes the daily drumbeat of bad news have you feeling a bit down? The G. Gibson Gallery in Pioneer Square may have a show for you. Their current exhibition presents works by gallery artists on the theme of flight, and the result, according to KUOW critic Gary Faigin, is a welcome bit of spring tonic.
Themed group shows are the stock in trade of museums and alternative spaces like Soil and Western Bridge, but they are less common in commercial galleries, busy as they are with client relations and other demands of the marketplace. It’s a shame, because everyone benefits – artists, gallery, and public alike – when such a show is as intelligently selected as the current exhibition “Flight” at G. Gibson in Pioneer Square, highlighting the work of three photographers and three painters with very loose thematic affinities.
Given the fact that all of the pieces at G. Gibson were pre-existing, there are a surprising number of links between the works. Four of the artists focus on birds, or rather, the idea of birds, which makes for some interesting comparisons. The fifth artist, vintage French photographer Lartigue, captures other things in flight, while contemporary photographer JoAnn Verburg presents selective-focus snapshots of the forest, where the winged wonders of the world are simply implied, rather than portrayed - or so the gallery would like us to think.
The most attention-grabbing pieces in the gallery are the dramatic mutant bird portraits of Eastern Washington artist Justin Gibbens, a painter who shows at both G. Gibson and the artist-run Punch Gallery around the corner. Taking as his point of departure the Birds of America watercolors of 19th century naturalist John J. Audubon, Gibbens (who studied scientific illustration) gives his birds a contemporary spin by turning them into chimaeras, grotesque hybrid creatures who purposeful distortions mock the earnest descriptions of the adventurous and awestruck Audubon. Gibbens not only borrows the dry, made-for-reproduction watercolor style of his predecessor, he also counterfeits age spots and stains to cheekily suggest a historical pedigree for his mock illustrations of an environment gone mad.
Gibbens borrows freely from monsters of the past as sources. American Griffin is the creature – half eagle, half lion – of medieval fantasy as Audubon might have drawn it; Canada Medusa is a Canadian Goose with four writhing, snake-like heads instead of one, a very clever allusion to the similarity between the flexible neck of the bird and the slithery reptile. The two owls also included are less successful, particularly one called Paradise nebulosa, where a blue jellyfish descends from the bottom of an intact, perching owl, appears simply like one animal pasted next to another. I like the way Gibbens alludes to the odor of spectacle and magic that clings to the earlier depictions of European and American artist/explorers, suggesting that there is a thin line between natural history wonder and sideshow sensation.
Equally clever, and also somewhat dystopic in mood, are the intriguing diorama photographs of Seattle artist Nealy Blau. Blau’s work here features peaceful water and woodland settings with discretely hidden bird life barely visible through the shrubbery. The twist - in 2009, there has to be a twist – is that all of the pictures are of natural history museum installations in very urban places like Minneapolis, Pittsburg, and Chicago. Blau has refined the art of disguising her sources, with careful cropping and selective focus almost, but not quite, giving her pictures the look of the great outdoors. The “not quite” is precisely the point, since Blau very much wants us to be vaguely aware that something – doesn’t that sky look painted? Aren’t those distant trees a little flat? – isn’t quite right with these images. They’re very funny, actually, since they are nature photographs at so many removes from actual nature, and Blau pushes the joke however she can, including the fact that her many of her birds are only partly seen, as though they moved off from the frame just as she pushed the shutter. I’m told that she had to spend days on end setting up and capturing these shots, taken with available light and excluding the glare of the vitrines, and that too reminds one of stories of patient National Geographic photographers, minus the storms, insects, and migrating wildlife.
Both Blau and Gibbens really aim to depict our human idea of birds, rather than the live creatures themselves. Painter Marc Dennis takes the humanizing impulse one step further, in a long-running series entitled, "Bird Thinking of a Cloud." Mixing wildly unlikely genres, he inserts a cartoon thought balloon into his photorealist portrayals of perching birds. The thought balloon, appropriately, is blank, since it comes here in the form of a realistically painted cloud with a few cloud dots linking it to the bird’s head. Dennis pulls off the trick of making the clouds appear as if they belong in his very real sky, and are not simply intruders from the cartoon universe (which of course they are). I see his work as an ironic commentary as to the chasm that separates the bird world from the world of humans, making us conscious as to the assumptions we unconsciously bring to wildlife art.
Someday it would be fascinating to do a show with the whole set of our local visionary diarists – Ed Kamuda, Jo Max Emminger, and Terry Turrell, for example - a group of mostly self-taught artists whose style flirts with the primitive and whose messages are hermetic but intriguing. That’s the case here with gallery regular Larry Calkins, whose small, highly textured encaustics feature human dramas whose true nature is left open-ended, encompassing themes of loss, reverie, disability and memory. Birds are referenced in every picture, here as a symbol for wildness, freedom, or vulnerability, there simply used to replace mouths with beaks – why, I have no idea.
Difficulty has become synonymous with quality in assessing contemporary art, and themed shows at alternative spaces typically offer art that is both unfamiliar and daunting. The work at G. Gibson Gallery pushes no envelopes and breaks no rules, but instead offer the pleasures of solid and intelligent art, with connections – as presented by the gallery - that the artists might themselves find surprising.